contribution to the emerging (and increasingly important) climate science debate. Butterworth’s call for philosophers of science to “do better” was inspired by another contribution to The Guardian from a few days earlier, this one written by Nicholas Maxwell, a philosopher at University College, London. Maxwell’s piece, “Scientists should stop deceiving us,” criticizes scientists generally (and climate scientists in particular) for producing what he calls “incomprehensible gobbledygook” that (he suggests) is to blame for the public’s rejection of scientific insights. Going even further, Maxwell suggests that underlying this problem is an even deeper one—an insistence on the part of scientists (especially physicists) that scientific theories be “unified”—capable of applying to all parts of the world in their domain—and that more explanatorily satisfying theories are rejected on the basis of disunity, leading to a thicket of incomprehensible theories that make little contact with the values of contemporary society.
As Butterworth points out, there is surely some truth to Maxwell’s criticism:
Science often falls short of its ideals, and the climate debate has exposed some shortcomings. Science is done by people, who need grants, who have professional rivalries, limited time, and passionately held beliefs. All these things can prevent us from finding out what works. This is why the empiricism and pragmatism of science are vital, and why when scientific results affect us all, and speak against powerful political and financial interests, the openness and rigour of the process become ever more important.
Science (to recapitulate the point from above) is hard, and indeed does often fall short of its goal of predicting what will happen in the world. The reasons for these failures are varied and complicated, but Maxwell is surely right to say that some of them have to do with the attitudes of some scientists themselves. With Butterworth, though, I have a hard time seeing the force of the claim that much of the blame for this problem is to be laid at the feet of specialization: the
- Maxwell (2010)
- Butterworth (ibid.)