Friday, 11 January 2013


When we identify a fact, is it a fact that the fact is a fact?

What makes a fact?

Well whatever they are, surely there are no facts without narratives. To deal with a fact it has to be brought into the language. That may be as basic as naming it, but even a name absorbs the fact into a narrative. It cloaks it in naming rules through which it must be described, inspected, linked and blended with other facts.

So scientists cannot gather facts in a neutral manner. How could they without giving them a name which is already in use, a name taken from existing narratives?

In that case, when scientists gather facts, they already have narratives telling them which facts to gather and what they mean. A new theory is a new narrative extended from existing narratives. It may be reformulated by new facts, but usually it isn’t.

This seems to be a basic problem with climate science. The climate is so complex there is no reliable narrative to tell us which are the most relevant facts. For example, climate scientists measure temperature when we all know energy measures would be useful facts too - possibly vital.

Yet climate scientists stick with temperature as a key fact because their largely political narrative defines it as such. They never had to justify their reliance on temperature because it fitted existing meteorological narratives.

We group narratives under different headings such as politics, science, religion and so on. In more doctrinal times, these distinctions were probably useful, but in today’s fluid environment, narratives are easily mingled, usually for political or simply rhetorical motives.

This is why it is so valuable to be open to more than one narrative, especially when both the narrative and its facts are complex. Facts morph as narratives morph and it is as well to know who is doing the morphing and why. Many punters in the climate debate seem to think they are dealing with scientific facts rather than a complex series of interwoven political and scientific narratives.

When a government defines a narrative, it also changes the general perception of facts. Some people understand this and are able to construct more rational narratives around the same or similar facts. Or they introduce alternative narratives and facts - those the government would prefer to ignore.

Others are confused, clinging to the idea that facts shape narratives. Facts may well shape narratives, but only in the hands of honest people.

Governments are not honest people.

A useful fact.


Nigel Sedgwick said...

I did a bit of 'worrying' on this issue of scientific fact a few years ago on Samizdata. Here is the first thought, very brief, and here is an expansion in the same thread.

On CAGW, last year, I did some further 'worrying' about the thermal capacity of the oceans. So I definitely agree with AKH that temperature is a secondary issue.

Best regards

Barnacle Bill said...

I don't know if you ever saw Horizon's "To Infinity And Beyond"?

There's some facts in there that will have you scratching your head Mr Haart.
I wish they would bring it out on DVD.

A K Haart said...

Nigel - I like your two longer comments. I looked at AGW science for quite a few years because I found the arguments interesting and still do.

However, it took me a while to see just how political the AGW arguments are. These days I tend to focus more on that.

Lots of reasons, but as with you, the vastness of ocean heat content and factors such as latent heat were enough to open my eyes to sheer scale of the uncertainties we still have to grasp.

Bill - I tend to distrust the BBC and almost never watch their programmes.

For me, a problem with shows such as Horizon is that they seem to select people who are prepared to make dramatic claims, or who present their work in a dramatic way.

In my view this makes it difficult for us to know if the people they use are the ones we should be paying attention to.

Barnacle Bill said...

I know what you mean Mr Haart and I had given up on the likes of Horizon.
But it just happened to be on the night I got home, original I just had the TV on for background noise, whilst I caught up with my emails.
By half way thru the programme I had forgotten the emails and was engrossed in the rest of the episode.
I've since got a couple of our Polish sailors to watch it and they have come back amazed!