Monthly Archives: November 2014

Searle’s case for realism

by Tim Harding

Towards the end of his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’, John Searle [1] makes a case for realism, which he defines as ‘the view that the world exists independently of our representations of it’ (Searle 1995: 153).  He first responds to what he sees as the main objections to this view (Searle 1995: 149-176); and then provides some arguments in favour of it (Searle 1995: 177-197).  Searle also discusses the correspondence theory of truth which he sees as related to realism (Searle 1995: 199-226).  In this essay, I shall present Searle’s arguments and responses in the reverse order to his, and then I shall discuss what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of his case.  My thesis is essentially that an external reality is consistent with both Searle’s construction of social reality and the correspondence theory of truth.

Searle commences his case in favour of realism by noting the methodological difficulty of an unavoidable element of circularity in the arguments.  Just as it is difficult to justify rationality in other than rational terms, it is difficult to justify the framework of reality from within the same framework.  He notes that:

“One can show that this or that claim corresponds to or fails to correspond to how things really are in the ‘external world’, but one cannot in that way show that the claim that there is an external world corresponds to how things are in the external world, because any question of corresponding or failing to correspond to the external world already presupposes the existence of an external world to which the claim corresponds or fails to correspond.” (Searle 1995: 178).

He then cites what he describes as the standard argument for realism, which is that convergence in science provides a kind of empirical proof of realism.  He says that the best explanation for this phenomenon is an independently existing reality that causes different scientists to converge on the same hypotheses, theories and experimental results.  However, Searle notes the methodological difficulty referred to above – that the recognition of convergence presupposes realism (Searle 1995: 179).  There is also another possible explanation of scientific instrumentalism, which I shall discuss later.

Searle next turns to G.E. Moore’s ‘proof’ of realism, in which Moore argued that the proposition that he has two hands entails the proposition that the external world exists (Moore 1962: 144-8).  Searle notes two problems with Moore’s proof.  The first is the assumption that external reality is a truth condition like any other; and the second is the related assumption that realism is a theory about external objects in space.  Searle responds that external reality is not an empirical thesis but a condition of intelligibility for having empirical theses.  He carefully states that ‘external realism is the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are’ (Searle 1995: 181-182).

Following on from this observation, Searle then proposes what he calls a ‘transcendental’ argument against phenomenalist idealism.  This is argument assumes that a certain condition obtains and then tries to show the background presuppositions of that condition.  In this case, the condition is that we attempt to communicate with each other by making certain sorts of utterances and the presupposition behind these utterances is external realism.  Realism does not say how things are but only that there is a way that they are that is independent of our representations (Searle 1995: 155, 183-188).

Searle next makes a logical connection between external reality and the socially constructed reality that forms the earlier chapters of his book.  He argues that ‘a socially constructed reality presupposes a reality independent of social constructions, because there has to be something for the construction to be constructed out of’.  For example, to socially construct money, property and language, there have to be the physical raw materials of metal, paper, land and sounds.  In other words, the ontological subjectivity of the socially constructed reality requires an ontologically objective reality out of which it is constructed.  He says that it is a logical consequence of the main argument of his book being that you cannot have institutional facts without brute facts (Searle 1995: 190-191).

Another logical connection is with the correspondence theory of truth, which Searle makes a case for in the final chapter of his book (Searle 1995: 199-228).   This theory implies realism since it implies that there is a reality to which statements correspond if they true . (Searle 1995: 154).

I would now like to turn to the three main arguments that Searle identifies as the most powerful against external realism.  These are the argument from conceptual relativity, the verificationist argument and what he calls the Ding an sich argument (Searle 1995: 160).

Conceptual relativity is the thesis that systems of representation, such as vocabularies and conceptual schemes generally, are human creations and to that extent arbitrary and multiply possible (Searle 1995: 151).  Several philosophers have supposed that external realism is inconsistent with conceptual relativity, but Searle disagrees.  He says that former idea just says that there is something out there to be described; whereas the latter idea says that we need to select a set of concepts and vocabulary to describe it.  The second idea does not entail a negation of the first (Searle 1995: 161).

“The fact that alternative conceptual schemes allow for different descriptions of the same reality, and that there are no descriptions of reality outside all conceptual schemes, has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of realism” (Searle 1995: 165).

The verificationist argument against realism is essentially that there is no way of verifying a reality independent of human experience and knowledge.  Searle identifies two strands to this argument.  The first is that because all we can ever perceive are our own experiences, if there is a reality beyond our experiences, then it is unknowable.  By extension, the second strand is that if claims about the real world go beyond the content of our experiences, then we are postulating something for which we have no epistemic basis (Searle 1995: 169-170).

Searle believes that both strands of the verificationist argument are mistaken.  For example, if he sees his desk in front of him, he is having a perceptual experience, but he does not ‘conclude’ on the basis of ‘evidence’ that there is a desk there; rather, he simply sees the desk.  It does not follow that it the existence of the desk is unknowable (Searle 1995: 170-173).

The Ding an sich argument is essentially a combination of the argument from conceptual relativity and the verificationist argument.  It is that not only is an external reality beyond the grasp of knowledge, but also our language and thought.  The alleged problem with such a realism is not that it is false, but that it is ultimately unintelligible (Searle 1995: 173-174).  Searle explicitly states the argument in terms of the following premise and conclusions:

“Premise: Any cognitive state occurs as part of a set of cognitive states and within a cognitive system.

Conclusion 1: It is impossible to get outside of all cognitive states and systems to survey the relationships between them and the reality they are used to cognize.

Conclusion 2: No cognition is ever of a reality that exists independently of cognition.”

In this argument, conclusion 2 is supposed to logically follow from conclusion 1. Whilst Searle concedes that conclusion 1 follows from the premise, he does not concede that conclusion 2 logically follows from conclusion 1.  He says that ‘it simply does not follow that from the fact that all cognition is within a cognitive system that no cognition is ever directly of a reality that exists independently of all cognition’ (Searle 1995: 174-175).

Having outlined Searle’s arguments for realism and his responses to the main objections to it, I would now like to discuss what I see as the main weaknesses and then the strengths of Searle’s case.

First, Searle claims that external reality is the best explanation for convergence in scientific hypotheses, theories and results; but he fails to mention alternative explanations such as scientific instrumentalism.  According to instrumentalists, scientific theory is merely a tool used by scientists to predict observations, without revealing or even relying on the existence of external reality (Torretti, 1999: 242–43).

Second, Searle notes problems with Moore’s ‘proof’ of external realism without stating the main argument in favour of it, which has become known as the ‘the G. E. Moore shift’ as follows.  Consider a standard sort of skeptical argument:

Premise 1: If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

Premise 2: I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming.

Conclusion: Therefore, I cannot be sure that I have a body

Employing ‘the G. E. Moore shift’, we rearrange the propositions of the skeptic’s argument, thus:

Premise 1: If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

Premise 2: I am sure that I have a body.

Conclusion: Therefore, I can tell the difference between waking and dreaming.” (Preston, 2014)

Both arguments are valid, but only one can be sound. Since both accept Premise 1, the question of soundness comes down to the question of which version of Premise 2 is true.  According to Moore, we have more reason to believe the common sense premise that he has a body than the skeptical premise.

Searle himself appeals to common sense in stating his case (Searle 1995: 158).  In my view, his ‘transcendental’ argument against phenomenalist idealism (Searle 1995: 155, 183-188) could be characterized as an appeal to common sense.  Possibly Searle thinks that Moore’s ‘proof’ is not relevant to his case, but if so, it would have been useful if explained his reasons in more detail.

I think that Searle’s strongest argument in favour of his position is the one related to the main thesis of his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’.  This argument is that the ontological subjectivity of the socially constructed reality requires an ontologically objective reality out of which it is constructed.  Or to put it simply, you cannot have institutional facts without brute facts (Searle 1995: 190-191).  For example, you cannot have the institutional fact of money without the brute fact of the metal, paper or plastic the money is made from.

A supporting (but not conclusive) argument is the consistency of realism with correspondence theory of truth, which is the idea that truth is a matter of correspondence to facts (Searle 1995: 1999).  The correspondence theory is only one of several theories of truth, but if we accept it (as many philosophers have), then it implies realism since there needs to be an external reality to which statements correspond if they true (Searle 1995: 154).

In conclusion, I think that Searle makes a good case for the existence of an external reality, both by presenting arguments of his own and by responding to the main objections to external reality.  Rather than the concept of social reality based on institutional facts presenting a challenge to external reality, I think the two concepts are consistent in the way that Searle has described.  An external reality is also consistent with the correspondence theory of truth.


[1] John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.


Moore, G.E. ‘Proof of an external world’ New York: Collier Books, 1962 in Sosa, E., Kim, J., Fantl, J., and McGrath, M. (eds) Epistemology – An Anthology.Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Preston, Aaron. ‘George Edward Moore (1873—1958)’ in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy <;, 26 October, 2014.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Torretti, Roberto. The Philosophy of Physics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp 242–43

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The ethics of bravery: why a Black Saturday ‘hero’ lost his award

The Conversation

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Last week, I received an email with the subject line: “Bravery award for baby killer.”

It urged readers to sign a petition calling on the Royal Humane Society of Australia to rescind a bravery award. Paul McCuskey, a volunteer firefighter, had been given a “Certificate of Merit” for helping to save the life of an elderly woman during the Black Saturday bushfires.

Yet McCuskey is now in prison for a series of vicious assaults on his partner Jeannie Blackburn – attacks that caused a miscarriage and left her blind in one eye. In the face of 18,000 petition signatures and calls from Humane Society patron Governor-General Quentin Bryce and the remarkably courageous Ms. Blackburn herself, the Society finally withdrew the award.

It’s a tragic case, and one that, as Suzy Freeman-Greene points out, raises complex issues. But whether you think websites like, GetUp! and All Out are genuine forces for progress or mere conduits for feel-good “slacktivism”, complexity is not something they are set up to handle well. Like their ideological opposite numbers in talkback radio, they need to present clear-cut narratives of right and wrong, with an unambiguous call-to-action at the end.

Yet these issues are unavoidably complex. In fact, the language we saw last week involved a clash between two ancient, competing understandings of morality.

The Humane Society’s objective is “to give public recognition to acts of bravery by bestowing awards on those who risk their own lives in saving or attempting to save the lives of others”. The emphasis here is focused on the moral quality of particular actions. It could be maintained – as the society reportedly initially did – that McCuskey’s actions on Black Saturday were morally praiseworthy, whatever else he’s done. But this way of thinking can easily lead to a sort of ethically crude arithmetic, as if we’re supposed to weigh rights against wrongs and come out with an overall score.

Much of the anger directed at the Humane Society’s decision to award the certificate in the first place, on the other hand, used a very different type of moral language: not evaluation of the action, but evaluation of the agent. Awards, we’re told, are for heroes – and a man who beats his partner cannot be a hero.

This focus on character belongs to the “virtue ethics” tradition that goes back to Aristotle. Virtues, according to Aristotle, are a job lot: you can’t be a generous thief or an honest glutton, because your vices will eventually disrupt and defeat your virtues.

But moral heroes often turn out to be flawed. Oskar Schindler, for instance, saved thousands of lives yet was unfaithful to his wife.

Even more troubling are the monsters who seem distressingly normal in other contexts. We find Stalin warmly addressing his daughter as “my little sparrow, my great joy” or tucking Beria’s children into bed disturbingly humanising, as if these scenes somehow mitigate his crimes. Or perhaps it actually makes him more monstrous somehow.

So, what should the Humane Society have done?

Let’s go back a step. Why do we have bravery awards? Not because we want to reward the virtue of courage per se, nor because we want to reward people for saving lives; otherwise every skydiver and surgeon would get one.

Rather, we give such awards in the aftermath of crises where the value and meaning of human life has nearly been obliterated by the absurdity of senseless, arbitrary destruction.

We reward those who hold that threat back, who in risking their own lives testify to the depth of the ways in which we value each other and thereby keep the moral sphere from coming apart. In chaotic moments that threaten to engulf us in meaninglessness, those who perform such acts keep the fabric of our moral universe temporarily intact.

You might say that a violent person can still perform such an act. But the “domestic” in “domestic violence” doesn’t just refer to a location, and the evil of domestic violence is not simply in the horrific physical and psychological harm it causes.

To understand the scale of its moral obscenity we must appreciate the depth of what it violates: the web of vulnerability, love, trust and security that unites us to those we live in the greatest intimacy with. An assault on the people given to us to love unconditionally shatters the moral sense and meaning of our most vital relationships. It is not simply violence in the home, but violence against the home, with everything that “home” implies.

Domestic violence is therefore more than violence: it’s a treason against the moral sphere itself.

To award someone for preserving the moral sphere who had also betrayed it in such a repugnant way would have been perverse.

Grappling with questions like this is hard work. It takes patience, an openness to dialogue and a certain degree of humility. But when our main avenues for talking about these issues are through soundbites and tweets, those virtues can be in short supply.

Online petitions are great – I’ve signed quite a few myself. But let’s not pretend we can just click our way out of moral perplexity.

The ConversationPatrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

Read more from Patrick Stokes: No, you’re not entitled to your opinion.

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Obama on the Great Barrier Reef

“I love Australia — I really do.  The only problem with Australia is every time I come here I’ve got to sit in conference rooms and talk to politicians instead of going to the beach.

Here, a climate that increases in temperature will mean more extreme and frequent storms, more flooding, rising seas that submerge Pacific islands.  Here in Australia, it means longer droughts, more wildfires.  The incredible natural glory of the Great Barrier Reef is threated.  Worldwide, this past summer was the hottest on record.  No nation is immune, and every nation has a responsibility to do its part.

So then setting up a target sends a powerful message to the world that all countries — whether you are a developed country, a developing country, or somewhere in between — you’ve got to be able to overcome old divides, look squarely at the science, and reach a strong global climate agreement next year.  And if China and the United States can agree on this, then the world can agree on this.  We can get this done.  And it is necessary for us to get it done.  (Applause.)  Because I have not had to go to the Great Barrier Reef — (laughter) — and I want to come back, and I want my daughters to be able to come back, and I want them to be able to bring their daughters or sons to visit.  (Applause.)  And I want that there 50 years from now.”

– US President Barack Obama at the University of Queensland, November 2014.


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Truman on opportunities


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Gail Kelly on being positive

“You should actively choose to be positive, to see the world through a glass-half-full perspective. You should choose, even in difficult times, to look for the learning, the insights, the opportunities, the next steps.” – Gail Kelly, retiring CEO of Westpac Bank.

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Francis Bacon on critical thinking

Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St. Alban, QC (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, essayist, and author. He served both as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England.  After his death, he remained extremely influential through his works, especially as philosophical advocate and practitioner of the scientific method during the second scientific revolution. (Note: Francis Bacon is not to be confused with Roger Bacon).


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Napoleon Hill on achievements

Napoleon Hill (October 26, 1883 – November 8, 1970) was an American author in the area of the new thought movement, who was one of the earliest producers of the modern genre of personal-success literature. He is widely considered to be one of the great writers on success.


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We have more parks than ever, so why is wildlife still vanishing?

The Conversation

By Bob Pressey, James Cook University and Euan Ritchie, Deakin University

While we can never know for sure, an extraordinary number of animals and plants are threatened with extinction — up to a third of all mammals and over a tenth of all birds. And the problem is getting worse.

At the same time, we have more land and sea than ever in protected areas (“parks”) — more than 200,000 protected areas covering about 15% of the world’s land area and 3% of the oceans.

So why are protected areas making so little difference?

This is a vital question about the future of nature that should be discussed at Sydney’s World Parks Congress, beginning today.

This once-in-a-decade Congress, led by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), will be attended by thousands. A sobering reality will lie behind the excitement and networking: while protected-area systems expand, we are losing the planet’s species at an alarming rate.

One reason is that protected areas are only one of our tools, and will never do the job alone. IUCN could say, though, that it’s doing the best it can.

But another reason, more confronting for IUCN, is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park in the United States
Rich Flynn, CC BY-NC-SA

Protecting the leftovers

Just about anywhere people have looked, the majority of protected areas are residual — leftover areas of the world pushed to the margins where they least interfere with extractive activities such as agriculture, mining, or forestry.

On land, protected areas are mainly remote or high, cold, arid, steep, and infertile. Similar patterns are emerging in the sea.

Residual protected areas, by definition, make least difference to conservation.

Meanwhile, biodiversity continues to be lost in landscapes and seascapes suitable for clearing, logging, grazing, fishing, and extraction of minerals, oil, and gas.

Residual protection also gives the false appearance of progress because many people equate the number of protected areas and their extent with success.

These figures are only “good news” if they tell us about the difference these parks make to conservation. They don’t.

Failing to stop the losses

The most rigorous estimates of the difference that protected areas make are small.

By 2008, only 7% of Costa Rica’s much-lauded protected-area system would have been deforested in the absence of protection.

Sloth in Cahuita National Park, Costa Rica
Marika Lüders, CC BY-NC

Globally, in 2005, the loss of native vegetation prevented by protected areas was 3% of their extent.

These numbers get to the very purpose of protected areas. They are small because protected areas are mainly residual.

Aiming for the wrong targets

Protected areas that make little or no difference should be a major concern for IUCN, especially because targets for protection endorsed by the Convention on Biological Diversity at best obscure and at worst encourage the failure of protected areas to make a difference.

The Convention’s targets are meant to guide decisions on protected areas to 2020. The only unambiguously quantitative target (number 11) says nothing about making a difference. It aspires to 17% of land and 10% of the sea under formal protection.

The result has been a rush to proclaim large, remote protected areas where they are easiest to establish and make least difference. The story is familiar in conservation and beyond: provide a simplistic metric that implies success, and it will be manipulated to achieve high scores.

Another of the Convention’s targets (number 5) gets closer to the real purpose of protected areas, but remains problematic: “By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation [are] significantly reduced.”

But there are problems here too. Before we halve the rate of loss, we need to know what the “baseline” rate of loss is — and over what period it should it be measured. Should it be measured in the past, when loss might have been slower, or now? Habitat loss also varies across the world — does that mean that reduction in loss rates of some areas can offset faster losses elsewhere?

Several kinds of tropical forests, for example, housing most of the world’s terrestrial species, are being lost rapidly. For these, even a halving of the rate of loss will mean mass extinction.

Australia setting a bad example

IUCN’s mission is hindered by recalcitrant governments.

Australia, as host of the World Parks Congress, will show off its conservation wares. The display window is less impressive than when Australia genuinely led global conservation thinking from the 1970s to 1990s.

Our protected areas on land, such as those in the host state, are strongly residual (claims of an improving trend are based on inadequate data).

Australia’s marine parks, which are directed more at satisfying total protected area than protecting threatened marine biodiversity, show other countries how not to protect the sea.

Australia is setting a bad example of how to protect our oceans
Chris Ford, CC BY-NC

And the only quantitative targets in Australia’s Strategy for the National Reserve System — for protected extent and coverage of regional ecosystems — leave plenty of scope for more parks that make little or no difference.

Not content with marginalising protection, Australian governments are weakening what’s there. Parks on land are being opened up for livestock grazing, industrial logging, mining, “conservation hunting”, and commercial development.

No-take zones in marine parks are being opened up for fishing. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is in jeopardy and the plan to fix it is destined to fail.

Four steps to make parks work

Here are four ways for IUCN to lead the way to parks that make a bigger difference:

  • Stop using targets that give the illusion of conservation progress. These include the number and extent of protected areas and percentages of countries, states, or regions covered. At best they will inadvertently obscure the real signal. At worst they will be used perversely to dress up residual protection.
  • Measure success as the difference protected areas make relative to no protection. This is “impact evaluation” in fields such as medicine, education, and development aid, where difference means saving and improving human lives. If saving species is also important, evaluating the impact of protected areas is essential.
  • Establish an IUCN Task Force to develop ways for evaluating the impact of protected areas, considering both biodiversity and human livelihoods. Assess the impact of current protected areas to provide lessons for management and future planning. And test approaches to setting priorities as the predictions they are.
  • Develop targets for the impact of protected areas: how much threat should be averted and how much loss should be avoided?

Ultimately, the success of conservation depends on what natural resources are left unexploited by humans so that other species can survive.

Protection that does not avoid the loss of species and ecosystems merely gives the appearance of conservation progress under exploitative business-as-usual.

Real conservation – the kind that makes a difference – depends on IUCN’s leadership. Every year of delay means irreversible, avoidable loss of biodiversity.

This article was co-authored by Dr Piero Visconti, Board Member of the European Section of the Society for Conservation Biology in Washington, D.C.

The ConversationThe authors do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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Thomas Paine on useless arguments


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Are you a poor logician? Logically, you might never know

The Conversation

By Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol and Richard Pancost, University of Bristol

This is the second article in a series, How we make decisions, which explores our decision-making processes. How well do we consider all factors involved in a decision, and what helps and what holds us back?

It is an unfortunate paradox: if you’re bad at something, you probably also lack the skills to assess your own performance. And if you don’t know much about a topic, you’re unlikely to be aware of the scope of your own ignorance.

Type in any keyword into a scientific search engine and a staggering number of published articles appears. “Climate change” yields 238,000 hits; “tobacco lung cancer” returns 14,500; and even the largely unloved “Arion ater” has earned a respectable 245 publications.

Experts are keenly aware of the vastness of the knowledge landscape in their fields. Ask any scholar and they will likely acknowledge how little they know relative to what is knowable – a realisation that may date back to Confucius.

Here is the catch: to know how much more there is to know requires knowledge to begin with. If you start without knowledge, you also do not know what you are missing out on.

This paradox gives rise to a famous result in experimental psychology known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning, it refers to a study they published in 1999. They showed that the more poorly people actually performed, the more they over-estimated their own performance.

People whose logical ability was in the bottom 12% (so that 88 out of 100 people performed better than they did) judged their own performance to be among the top third of the distribution. Conversely, the outstanding logicians who outperformed 86% of their peers judged themselves to be merely in the top quarter (roughly) of the distribution, thereby underestimating their performance.

John Cleese argues that this effect is responsible for not only Hollywood but the actions of some mainstream media.

Ignorance is associated with exaggerated confidence in one’s abilities, whereas experts are unduly tentative about their performance. This basic finding has been replicated numerous times in many different circumstances. There is very little doubt about its status as a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.

Confidence and credibility

Here is the next catch: in the eyes of others, what matters most to judge a person’s credibility is their confidence. Research into the credibility of expert witnesses has identified the expert’s projected confidence as the most important determinant in judged credibility. Nearly half of people’s judgements of credibility can be explained on the basis of how confident the expert appears — more than on the basis of any other variable.

Does this mean that the poorest-performing — and hence most over-confident — expert is believed more than the top performer whose displayed confidence may be a little more tentative? This rather discomforting possibility cannot be ruled out on the basis of existing data.

But even short of this extreme possibility, the data on confidence and expert credibility give rise to another concern. In contested arenas, such as climate change, the Dunning-Kruger effect and its flow-on consequences can distort public perceptions of the true scientific state of affairs.

To illustrate, there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from our economic activities are altering the Earth’s climate. This consensus is expressed in more than 95% of the scientific literature and it is shared by a similar fraction — 97-98% – of publishing experts in the area. In the present context, it is relevant that research has found that the “relative climate expertise and scientific prominence” of the few dissenting researchers “are substantially below that of the convinced researchers”.

Guess who, then, would be expected to appear particularly confident when they are invited to expound their views on TV, owing to the media’s failure to recognise (false) balance as (actual) bias? Yes, it’s the contrarian blogger who is paired with a climate expert in “debating” climate science and who thinks that hot brick buildings contribute to global warming.

‘I’m not an expert, but…’

How should actual experts — those who publish in the peer-reviewed literature in their area of expertise — deal with the problems that arise from Dunning-Kruger, the media’s failure to recognise “balance” as bias, and the fact that the public uses projected confidence as a cue for credibility?

Speaker of the US House of Representatives John Boehner admitted earlier this year he wasn’t qualified to comment on climate change.

We suggest two steps based on research findings.

The first focuses on the fact of a pervasive scientific consensus on climate change. As one of us has shown, the public’s perception of that consensus is pivotal in determining their acceptance of the scientific facts.

When people recognise that scientists agree on the climate problem, they too accept the existence of the problem. It is for this reason that Ed Maibach and colleagues, from the Centre for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, have recently called on climate scientists to set the record straight and inform the public that there is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening.

One might object that “setting the record straight” constitutes advocacy. We do not agree; sharing knowledge is not advocacy and, by extension, neither is sharing the strong consensus behind that knowledge. In the case of climate change, it simply informs the public of a fact that is widely misrepresented in the media.

The public has a right to know that there is a scientific consensus on climate change. How the public uses that knowledge is up to them. The line to advocacy would be crossed only if scientists articulated specific policy recommendations on the basis of that consensus.

The second step to introducing accurate scientific knowledge into public debates and decision-making pertains precisely to the boundary between scientific advice and advocacy. This is a nuanced issue, but some empirical evidence in a natural-resource management context suggests that the public wants scientists to do more than just analyse data and leave policy decisions to others.

Instead, the public wants scientists to work closely with managers and others to integrate scientific results into management decisions. This opinion appears to be equally shared by all stakeholders, from scientists to managers and interest groups.

Advocacy or understanding?

In a recent article, we wrote that “the only unequivocal tool for minimising climate change uncertainty is to decrease our greenhouse gas emissions”. Does this constitute advocacy, as portrayed by some commenters?

It is not. Our statement is analogous to arguing that “the only unequivocal tool for minimising your risk of lung cancer is to quit smoking”. Both statements are true. Both identify a link between a scientific consensus and a personal or political action.

Neither statement, however, advocates any specific response. After all, a smoker may gladly accept the risk of lung cancer if the enjoyment of tobacco outweighs the spectre of premature death — but the smoker must make an informed decision based on the scientific consensus on tobacco.

Likewise, the global public may decide to continue with business as usual, gladly accepting the risk to their children and grandchildren – but they should do so in full knowledge of the risks that arise from the existing scientific consensus on climate change.

Some scientists do advocate for specific policies, especially if their careers have evolved beyond simply conducting science and if they have taken new or additional roles in policy or leadership.

Most of us, however, carefully limit our statements to scientific evidence. In those cases, it is vital that we challenge spurious accusations of advocacy, because such claims serve to marginalise the voices of experts.

Portraying the simple sharing of scientific knowledge with the public as an act of advocacy has the pernicious effect of silencing scientists or removing their expert opinion from public debate. The consequence is that scientific evidence is lost to the public and is lost to the democratic process.

But in one specific way we are advocates. We advocate that our leaders recognise and understand the evidence.

We believe that sober policy decisions on climate change cannot be made when politicians claim that they are not scientists while also erroneously claiming that there is no scientific consensus.

We advocate that our leaders are morally obligated to make and justify their decisions in light of the best available scientific, social and economic understanding.

Click on the links below for other articles in the series, How we make decisions:

The ConversationStephan Lewandowsky receives funding from the Royal Society, from the World University Network (WUN), and from the ‘Great Western 4’ (GW4) consortium of English universities.

Richard Pancost receives funding from RCUK, the EU and the Leverhulme Trust.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Republished with permission). Read the original article.

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