Professor Christopher Essex: denialism meets philosophy of science

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Alfie Hoar
Alfie Hoar is a student at Pembroke College, Oxford University reading Physics and Philosophy. He has written multiple articles on modern climate change denial in the UK, published in the Independent and the Ecologist. He’s coordinated multiple campaigns on climate policy, including calling for denialist groups in the UK to have charitable status removed.

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Should we trust science? It may seem like a harmless question, and one that seems pretty rational to answer ‘yes’ to. Yet trust in science has been massively undermined in recent decades by denialist attitudes. From climate change denial to anti-vax beliefs, these attitudes have shown how delicate science truly is. Because of this, it’s interesting to see what individuals involved in these movements think about this question, and science is general. A piece by Professor Christopher Essex offers insight to this. Essex is a Professor of Applied Mathematics and is the Chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Academic Advisory Council, one of the largest sources of climate change denial in the UK.

Essex’s piece is titled ‘Should we trust science?’ and is a review of Professor Naomi Oreskes book ‘Why Trust Science?’. Oreskes is trying to construct an answer to many people’s questions about the usefulness of science, largely brought about because of the campaigns to undermine public trust in mainstream scientists. A central theme to her work is that ‘consensus’ is vital to science. This is not a very new idea to the philosophy of science, and has been used very obviously in areas like public health or climate science, but, rather unsurprisingly, Essex rejects this idea.

A key insight into Essex’s view of how science works or should work is when he directly answers the question in his article’s title:

Should we trust science? The answer to that question is completely straightforward and simple: no! Why “no”? You’re not supposed to trust science! That’s the point of science!

This rigid epistemology seems to leave us in a bit of a conundrum. Essex never specifies who the ‘you’ is here, yet that clearly matters. If the individual in question is a scientist in the lab testing a theory, then this quote is perhaps reasonable. Practicing as a scientific researcher requires a level of scepticism, and when testing a theory it’s important not to have blind trust that the theory is true. However, even in this case the scientist is placing their trust in established background theories in science; for example, they’re trusting that the science behind the technology they’re using is correct. Under many other circumstances this attitude would detrimental to scientific work. Scientists have great faith in their theories, and they work hard to promote them through conferences and articles, all of which is very important for collaboration and progress. The Popperian attitude that scientists are just out to prove their theories wrong has been shown to be an inaccurate picture of how science works.

In everyday life if people didn’t accept any scientific knowledge there would be huge societal problems; it’s hard to comprehend the public health crisis we’d face if no one trusted any of the science behind any modern medicine or studies into human health. It’s clear that our epistemic standards, our standards for what we can reasonably claim to know, need to be contextual in order for science to be useful. Essex’s epistemology seems to consign science to a fruitless exercise.

Four scientists working together in a laboratory. They're all wearing white lab coats and looking at plants in glass specimen containers.

Building on this, Essex tries to strip science of all its social context. He claims that human sociology bloats the term science, since it results in looking at the human organisations (universities, science publishers, governments etc.). Taking a stripped science, along with his rigid epistemology, Essex claims consensus is ‘unscientific’ and accuses Oreskes of thinking that “total consensus [determines] truth in the natural world.”

If taken literally, this complaint is a complete strawman. Oreskes says nothing of the sort; she simply claims that it is through consensus in scientific work that we can best hope to uncover those truths, or at least that is it the most rational route to follow to uncover natural truth.

Taking a more nuanced version of Essex’s claim, it seems like he’s dismissing the idea that consensus is the most rational route. If so, then what is the most rational route? Is there one? Not everyone can be a sceptic all the time, not even scientists. If we deny ourselves of any scientific knowledge, we’re in a very dire situation. The recent pandemic shows how important this knowledge can be.

Maybe there’s another route. Rather predictably, Essex uses this time to make a jab at the consensus around climate change, calling it an “ad hoc creation of political fashion composed of some legitimate scientific subfields”. If we were to follow the climate change denialists example, then we’d reject trusting the consensus for trusting a small group of contrarian scientists. Despite what Essex said earlier, it’s not that people like him don’t trust science, it’s just that they don’t trust the majority of scientists. Why? The answer is unclear, but it doesn’t seem to be due to a coherent picture of science.

By stripping science of its social context, we miss Oreskes’ key point. We need to have trust in science to prevent it becoming a fruitless mental exercise. Yes, science is inherently sceptical and so are scientists, but the level of this scepticism is contextual. If as a society we don’t have trust in science, then all the work of scientists becomes useless.

Essex criticises the IPCC and quotes Sir John Houghton as saying that the IPCC was orchestrated for political reasons. Yet this only seems inherently unscientific if we take Essex’s rigid epistemology and anti-social view of science. Yes, the IPCC was created partially for political reasons. Science and the dissemination of scientific knowledge exists in a socio-political landscape. The IPCC was created to further voice the consensus that was being reached within the scientific literature, so that this literature and scientific work would be useful for society.

Both the anti-trust and anti-social view of science proposed by Essex don’t seem to match reality. Even he doesn’t stick to them. Denialists clearly have trust in some contrarian scientists, and climate change denialism is about as political as science gets. We want science to be useful and Oreskes is trying to construct a way to explain why it’s useful; it’s not surprising that denialist have issues with this.

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