Uncomfortable knowledge

By Judith Curry

On the misuse of science and scientific authority.

The latest issue of The Breakthrough Journal is a tour de force. Excerpts from the Introduction to the issue:

<begin quote>

Donald Rumsfeld famously opined on the problems of decision-making in the face of “known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns.” To those three categories Rayner added a fourth, “unknown knowns” — the things we actually know but pretend we don’t. He called this “uncomfortable knowledge,” referring to all that policy makers and institutions forget in order to govern.

To some degree, banishing uncomfortable knowledge from the picture was unavoidable, Rayner argued. Faced with a world of irreducible complexity, humans must construct simplified versions of reality in order to act. But when institutions are unable to integrate uncomfortable knowledge into policy making, the consequences can be grave. This is true not just with regard to short-term policy outcomes, but also to the long-term credibility of the institutions.

A year later, the Covid-19 pandemic has offered us an object lesson in how this is so. From the beginning, scientists, experts, pundits, and provocateurs made bold pronouncement after overconfident prediction. Policy makers announced restrictions, based ostensibly on the best available science and then abandoned them within days.

As often as not, the facts are subservient to our interpretations of their meaning. Success at containing the virus in Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan doesn’t count because they are Asian countries. New Zealand does because they are like “us.” High case rates in the United States and the UK are due to the incompetence of globally unpopular leaders. In Italy, Spain, and France, they are due to aging populations and higher density.

One thing, though, seems certain. With each twist of the plot, each new skirmish among dueling experts, each round of blame-saying when things don’t work out as promised, our social and political institutions lose a little more credibility.


As with the pandemic, so with the world. This issue of the Breakthrough Journal is titled, Uncomfortable Knowledge, in homage to Rayner, whose work informed, anticipated, and inspired so much that we have published over the years. It includes Rayner’s final essay, “Policy Making in the Post-Truth World,” published posthumously with Daniel Sarewitz. In the essay, Rayner and Sarewitz offer a valedictory of Rayner’s thinking about the demands and perversities of “post-normal” science, how normative views about nature inform science as it relates to risk, technology, and the environment, and the ways in which so much of what we call science today does not actually describe nature but rather artificial simulacrums of the natural world that are increasingly removed from anything we can observe or test.

The resulting hash of normative claims, confirmation biases, superficial empiricism, unfalsifiable predictions, counterfactuals, and counter-counterfactuals has, unsurprisingly, been attended by declining faith in the sciences, experts, and institutions that presume to guide us on these matters. In response, many observers conclude that we have entered a “post-truth” era, in which right-wing populists, conspiracists, and alternative healers are waging a war on science with potentially devastating consequences for human societies and the planet.

But Rayner and Sarewitz argue that this isn’t so. The problem is not that charlatans have duped the public with pseudoscience and misinformation but rather that the expert class and the institutions in which they are embedded has failed to attend to the panoply of public values that are unavoidably implicated in the construction of policy-relevant science. The solution, they argue, is not more research, better science communication, or louder condemnations of science denial. Instead, it is greater cognitive pluralism — both in how we define problems and how we shape solutions — so that both are better able to speak to a broader range of normative postures toward risk.

Much of the discussion of the “war on science” and our “post-truth” condition, of course, regards not a generalized condition but a specific controversy, the failure of policy makers to heed the recommendations of climate scientists, with many climate advocates claiming that the failure to act is the result of a sustained campaign of media disinformation underwritten by fossil fuel interests.

But in “Unbalanced: How Liberal Elites Have Cued Climate Polarization,” political scientists Eric Merkley and Dominik Stecula argue that there is little evidence to support this claim. Drawing upon a comprehensive study of three decades of news coverage of the issue, Merkley and Stecula find that mainstream media outlets, including conservative outlets like the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, have never given climate skeptics much of a platform.

That, however, is not the end of the story. The media has played a role in the polarization of attitudes about the issue, just not the role that many have imagined. “The problem with the conventional environmental story about climate denial,” Merkely and Stecula write, “is that it ignores the critical and polarizing impact of cues Republican voters received from Democratic and liberal elites.”

Over the last two decades, Republicans have become more skeptical about climate change. This is not because they were taking their cues from science denialists in the media but because they were reacting negatively to high-profile liberal and environmental climate advocates who have dominated media coverage.

That is indeed uncomfortable knowledge for those who have been overwhelmingly represented on this issue in media coverage and have shaped the broader narrative. And so partisans and environmentalists invented a conspiracy to explain their failure to win over the public rather than countenance the possibility that two decades of framing the issue in ways that served partisan and ideological ends predictably polarized the issue along partisan and ideological lines.

In “What Would Hayek Do About Climate Change,” Sagoff takes aim at neoclassical economists who argue that the problem is the result of a “market failure” that can be solved by pricing carbon. The claim misunderstands what markets and prices actually do. “Markets are for discovery, not utility,” Sagoff argues. Prices convey information, not value.

“If the American Economic Association (AEA) had its way, it would set prices in terms of its calculus of the social cost of carbon,” Sagoff writes. “Entrepreneurs would then plan not around market prices but around AEA ‘prices,’ which float in the doctrinal and political winds. This turns investment into speculation — bets on what the next administration or central committee will do.”

Hayek, Sagoff speculates, would have understood climate change not as a problem of market failure but as one of information, discovery, and innovation. He would not have objected to government acting as investor and venture capitalist, or even paying more for nascent clean energy technologies. But he would have objected to government attempting to fix markets by setting prices.

“By chanting a ritual ‘market failure’ abracadabra over social problems,” economists, Sagoff argues, “would replace a free-market economy with cost-benefit analysis, the better to achieve a figment of their mathematical imagination, i.e., welfare, being better off, or utility, which they expect to be paid to measure.”


Across a long and varied career, Rayner, an anthropologist by training, was less interested in what science does in the abstract, or what its intrinsic value is, than what it is for. How do we use it? Why do we trust it? How do the sciences, and the people who interpret them for policy-makers and lay publics, help us make sense of the world, produce outcomes that we want, and make better decisions?

In these regards, Rayner was as concerned with the misuse of science, and scientific authority as he was with all that science could do. Whether it is climate scientists who demand ever more media coverage of their science, environmental advocates who insist that their political agenda is simply the law of thermodynamics writ small in social policy, or economists who imagine that they can reliably estimate the costs of climate change at the end of the century to calculate appropriate carbon tax levels today, all of the essays in this issue speak, in one way or another, to this question.

The notion that public science could reasonably characterize the costs and benefits of climate change over a century or the behavior of a nuclear waste repository over millennia, or even the global consequences of a quickly unfolding pandemic across hundreds of regions with different populations, cultures, and institutional traditions and capacities asks something of science, and the institutions in which it lives, that it could never possibly live up to.

“Nobody worries,” Rayner and Sarewitz observe, “whether laypeople trust astrophysicists who study the origins of stars or biologists who study anaerobic bacteria that cluster around deep sea vents.” Nor have most of us come to distrust surgeons or airline pilots. It is rather a particular kind of science, “making claims upon how we live and how we are governed” that so many of us no longer trust.

This sort of science has become so intensely contested in the early decades of the 21st century because the science, related as it is to the complex interface of human societies, public health, the natural world, and technology, carries so much uncertainty across so many valences of human choices and values. Lay publics are right to mistrust strong claims, whether they come from scientists, policy-makers, or advocates, based upon this sort of science.

For this reason, Rayner cared far more about civic institutions than the knowledge they embody; believing that good institutions, capable of navigating competing interests and worldviews, were more important than an idealized notion of “good science.” That perspective has proven ever more prescient and valuable as so much public science has become increasingly untethered from claims that are actually observable or testable in nature, as our expert class has become ever more unaccountable to its many competing and overconfident claims and predictions, and as our political class has become unwilling to take responsibility for their actions and decisions. The problem is not so much the science relevant to social controversies regarding risk, technology, and the environment but the elites and institutions that produce it.

As we have watched so many of our institutions fail and so much of our political culture come apart, it only becomes clearer that our capacity for self-government in advanced developed economies depends upon reestablishing a healthy interface between science, public institutions, and the publics they serve. Sadly, Steve Rayner is no longer here to help us navigate these challenges. But his work and legacy have left us a deep reserve to draw upon as we grapple our way toward what Rayner recognized would always be “clumsy solutions.”

This article appeared on the Climate Etc. website at https://judithcurry.com/2021/03/03/uncomfortable-knowledge/


Subscribe to Our Informative Weekly Newsletter Here:

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.