Michael Weisberg on Philosophy and Climate
Ramanan Raghavendran speaks with Michael Weisberg about philosophy's applications to the climate crisis.
In this episode, Ramanan speaks with Michael Weisberg, Bess W. Heyman President's Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he also co-directs the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance and directs post-graduate programs at Perry World House under the aegis of Penn Global. They discuss scientific models, the Galápagos, resistance to science, and Weisberg’s contributions to the IPCC. Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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[00:05:40] Penn’s Philosophy Department
[00:25:03] Advising the UN and the Maldives
[00:33:15] Resistance to Scientific Findings
[00:00:15] Ramanan Raghavendran: Hello everyone.
We're here today with Michael Weisberg, the Bess Heyman President's Distinguished Professor and Chair of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as Senior Faculty Fellow and Director of Post Graduate Programs at Perry World House.
Dr. Weisberg serves as Editor-in-Chief of Biology and Philosophy. He is an advisor to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change's Nairobi Work Program, climate advisor to the Republic of Maldives, and directs Penn's campus-wide research in the Galápagos.
Much of his research is focused on how idealized models and simulations can be used to understand complex systems. He also leads efforts to better understanding the interface between humans and wildlife, between humans and the climate system, and how scientific issues are understood by communities in the Americas and in East Asia.
As I read his bio, it feels to me that this is one occasion where I really wish our podcasts were longer, but we'll do this the way it's usually done. He received a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of California, San Diego in 1999, and continued graduate study in Philosophy and Evolutionary Biology at Stanford, earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy.
So we're going to get going.
[00:01:28] Michael, can you walk us through your life and career? How did you end up here?
[00:00:15] Michael Weisberg: Well, thanks for having me very much, Ramanan. Really, a great pleasure to talk to you as always. How I ended up here, I feel like lots of twists and turns.
So I always tell people by way of introduction, my wife always wanted to be a novelist. I always wanted to be a scientist, so I ended up a humanities professor and she ended up a science professor, of course, because life is like that.
As you said, I majored in chemistry and very enthusiastically, but I, along the way got really, I guess, drawn and seduced by questions that were about how science works, especially how we can get a handle on really, really complex systems.
And so, the deeper I went into science, much as I really enjoyed laboratory work, much as I enjoyed theory and problem sets, I also just kept getting the bug for the big questions and also for methodology questions.And so, that's what ultimately led me to philosophy.
There's this discipline in philosophy called philosophy of science, which many people know as scientific method, that first chapter in a lot of scientific textbooks. So philosophy of science really is the systematic study of how science works and also there's different sort of subdisciplines of philosophy of science.
So I mostly worked in philosophy of biology, which most of the literature is really about how evolutionary biology works and how ecology works and essentially how we can take these incredibly complex things that scale from very small to very large, that scale over a huge unimaginably long periods of time and how we can actually really understand them.
And so, that's kind of what really drew me in. And then just getting closer to the present, there's a long tradition in my field of philosophers of science, especially of biology, of being involved in public matters.
And so, the big one that happened early in my career was creationism actually. So when I was an assistant professor, me and the now undergraduate dean of the school arts and sciences, Paul Sniegowski were involved in this case called the Dover case, the Dover Pennsylvania, which was certain school board members wanted the teachers to be teaching a type of creationism called intelligent design.
So we were a bit involved in the trial and in some of the public discourse around it. Paul very sensibly went back to being a biologist. I couldn't stop working in these kind of public arenas.
So, I actually... Part of my research at that point really turned towards public understanding of scientific issues, mostly in those days' evolution, but climate change naturally came along for the ride and one thing led to another. Before I knew it, I was running a big interdisciplinary project in Galápagos, which is, it takes up a lot of time and thinking, but inevitably many roads lead to climate change.
So, for a good part of the last decade I've been working on thinking about climate change and biodiversity in Galápagos and more recently in the last five or six years, really working on international climate policy. That's the work that probably occupies most of my time now. I think that's perhaps the thing that we're going to speak about.
In that area beyond just leading research efforts, as you said, I work with some really remarkable people in the international institutions, so with some actual UN bodies, but also I'm a senior advisor to the environment minister of Maldives, which means I'm part of her negotiating team in the climate negotiations.
So that's from a kid that wanted to study chemistry through lots of crazy cross turns, involving creationists and others. I ended up sitting at COP 27 in Egypt just a few weeks ago working on some of the really consequential decisions. And yeah, I guess, it's nice to have a career that lets you do such things.
[00:05:06] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, before I move on to the next question, I have a follow-up question, which... I think when the average, reasonably well-read person thinks about philosophy departments at American universities, one tends to conclude maybe on little evidence that so much of it, it feels like glorified math, very analytical approach, but that's not your career, that's not how your life has evolved in the academic setting.
[00:05:40] Is there something about Penn, is there something about Penn's philosophy department, or is there something larger that has given you this flexibility?
[00:05:48] Michael Weisberg: It's interesting, that perception. Probably my colleagues in other humanities departments might still say that of me or my department. But it is true that our philosophy department's a little different. I think what you're referring to, Ramanan, is that the most philosophy departments in the major research universities in the United States would identify with sometimes with this term analytic philosophy.
And that really refers to the very central role played by logic and logical type analysis. And part of that really comes from the fact that there was this really fertile period at the beginning of the 20th century where physics was changing really rapidly because of general relativity and quantum mechanics, but also mathematics was changing in important ways because of logic. And the change was that...
Believe it or not, until the end of the 19th century into the 20th century, the notion of what a proof is in formal terms, what it really means to have a proof hadn't really been worked out. And really important developments in mathematical logic around the turn of the 20th century made that possible.
So then what happened moving from the beginning of the 20th century to World War II and beyond is you had this group of people, mostly in Germany and Austria, who had studied physics, mathematics, logic, philosophy, who were in the circles of the people like Einstein, and they eventually became refugees because of World War II. And-
[00:07:08] Ramanan Raghavendran: And here are you talking or referring to people like Wittgenstein or others?
[00:07:13] Michael Weisberg: The early Wittgenstein, people like Carnap, people like Carl Hempel, Hans Reichenbach, Einstein was in this circle, Karl Popper is in this circle. So these are the kinds of people.
Wittgenstein's early work was very logical. His later work took different turns. But this refers to a group sometimes called the Vienna Circle and the Berlin Circle.
And then what happened is that these folks, they came to the United States, they came to the UK, they came to Australia, a few other places, Canada, and found a kind of...
Intellectually, their opponents in Europe were the German idealist who they were really in opposition to. But when they came to places like the United States, they found the American pragmatists, people like John Dewey and William James and their students who were already scientifically oriented and were very willing to welcome them, but this was a very intellectually productive crew.
And also because they worked on these technical issues, they helped redefine philosophy as being a bit more like what Kuhn calls normal science, where it can be broken down into bits and where everyone doesn't need to write a big book on a huge issue, but that the journal articles could actually take on a very specific claim, even if it's a quite profound one like how does quantification work in ordinary language or something like that.
So that was this really fertile period and out of this very fertile period, we actually see the birth of computer science, we see the birth of linguistics. And if you go back, for example, even when I was a PhD student at Stanford, there were still people who were definitely linguists and mathematical logicians who worked on topics that were really computer science in the philosophy department because that's really what birthed these other topics.
And you sitting in Silicon Valley know very much about the symbolic systems approach to artificial intelligence and the way that all of these things were tied together and they were tied together both in philosophy departments but also in kind of research institutes that they collaborated with, places like Xerox Par and SRI, the brand corporation. So you see, gain theory, logic, theoretical computer science, philosophy, all kind of marching together. So I think that's where that perception comes from.
Now, my department is certainly connected to all of those things, but I think always had more interest in... I mean, we certainly had logic and we had philosophy of physics and confirmation during those things, but also was really interested in the life sciences long before that became a much more common thing. Also, and both historically and contemporary waste, two of my colleagues are basically historians of early modern biology and philosophy of biology.
We also had a very strong interest in the history of philosophy in a time when... In that kind of mid-century into the '70s, '80s period, you're talking about. History of philosophy was sort of seen as sort of secondary importance. And again, the Penn philosophy Department took this very seriously, said that that's actually one of the things that's really distinct about philosophy is that the study of the history of philosophy is itself a philosophical topic.
We go back to these figures because we think that they saw the world differently, they had a different conceptual framework, and it pays us to revisit it. And the other thing that my department has a long tradition of is taking normative issues very seriously.
So we have long and deep traditions in ethics, in political philosophy, and philosophy of law. Again, these things are much more common than they were mid-century, but I think that's one of the reasons why Penn is a bit distinct.
So just coming back to your question, I think... I always tell people, it's like part of the great thing about my department is my colleagues, they wanted me to do really important meaningful work. They wanted it to actually make contact with the rest of the world, and they never fuss too much about what is really philosophy and what isn't, because I think that they reject that very question.
[00:10:46] Ramanan Raghavendran: That's awesome.
[00:10:47] Michael Weisberg: Yeah.
[00:10:47] Ramanan Raghavendran: That's awesome. I knew I should have taken philosophy courses at Penn and I—
[00:10:51] Michael Weisberg: It's not too late. It's not too late.
[00:10:54] Ramanan Raghavendran: Well, I hope you're right. Okay, we're going to come back to the main thread of our discussion and I'm going to combine a couple of my questions.
So a lot of your philosophical work relates to the construction and refinement of scientific models. And the two questions that go together are: what is the average person, and I would be the average person, mistake about models?
[00:11:15] What is it that we get wrong as we think about models in an abstract sense? And then second related to that is, how do climate models differ from other models that we see in science?
[00:11:27] Michael Weisberg: Well, these are terrific questions about models. I guess, the first, maybe the thing to say is the way I think about models and modeling and simulation is that modeling is a kind of surrogate reasoning.
So the core activity of doing science using models, modeling, simulation is that what we're trying to do is learn about some system in the world by building a new system.
So in the old days, and even occasionally to this day, it was a physical model. So you're in the Bay Area and one of my favorite example of a physical model still lives in the Bay Area, there's a working hydraulic model of the San Francisco Bay and Sausalito that you can go see. And the Army Corps built this model because they wanted to study what various kinds of reclamation plans and modification plans to the Bay would look like. So they built a physical model.
They didn't for a second believe that the real bay is built out of concrete and has these copper strips sticking out and uses pumps for the tides. But what they were able to do, of course, is take some of the essential features about the real bay, what I call in my work, the target system, which would in this case be the real bay, bring enough of that information into the model, calibrate the most important parts to the data that they've collected from the real bay, and then by manipulating the model, learn something about what would happen in manipulating the world.
Contemporary models are primarily mathematical in nature and run on computers, and they have the same character except that they're not usually built out of concrete. But again, it's a surrogate reasoning. We build a representation that's not meant to be fully accurate. It's highly idealized in all sorts of ways, but the essential features we try to ensure that they bear the essential similarities to the real target. And then again, by manipulating and studying the model, we hope to learn about the real target.
And that's the essential thing that I hope that people would know about models is it's the surrogate reasoning and that shows you both what you should think about them and then what you should also not think about them.
So the thing you should think about them is when they're well constructed, depending on how they're constructed, they could either help you make extremely good predictions about the future. And in some cases they're not designed for that. They're really designed to just have certain essential features so that you can develop what philosophy of science, call it scientific explanations, but you can think of it as a sense of understanding of how the real world system behaves.
And it's not like one of these is right and one of these is wrong, but you should probably recognize that in many cases the same model won't be used for all of those purposes.
The really, really complex models that are good for making really precise predictions about the future are often ones that are really difficult to understand what's happening, whereas the very simple models sometimes... you can think of it as they isolate the most important causal features of the world.
But I think the thing to really emphasize and maybe what people get wrong is that ultimately if you have to make decisions and you're modeling in order to make decisions, as is the case in the climate space, you should think of the models as tools for reasoning. You shouldn't think of them as the thing that tells you the right answer.
So to bring to the second part of your question, in some sense the answer to your question about what's different about climate models is nothing. They're models like every other kind of model. They're just very, very complex ones. But one thing that's kind of functionally different between the way climate models are used and the way most scientific models are used is that the most important variable is us.
So we don't really know what kind of future that we are going to pick in terms of our climate policies. Are we going to have a high carbon future, a low carbon future, something in between?
So one of the things that the climate community does, which is standardizes some answers to those questions, not one, but five, there's more than five, but there's five very common ones and runs all the different models from all the different groups that have developed them using these kind of five scenarios about the future: how intensely we will... Well, you can think of it as, how well will we mitigate or how intensely will we be burning carbon in the future?
And then that really shows you this point I said before, you should think... The models are not predicting the future, that we would take a crystal ball. But what they're telling us is well, if we want to do what the Paris Agreement tells us that we need to do, which is to hold things to 1.5, which one of those kind of future scenarios do we need to be in?
And the models tell us we need to be in the one that has our emissions by the end of the decade and brings up to net zero by 2050. If you look at where we're actually going, then you can say, "Well, that takes us to the two point something as... If you say, "If the nightmare scenario happens," and the emerging economy is just like... put their foot on the gas, that's a different story altogether.
So I think that's maybe the way we should think about it. But I'll also say these are the kind of models that I was saying as they're super complex and they try to capture as much as possible to make these predictions. And hence you shouldn't rely on those models themselves to be the ones that give you great insight into say how the ocean is coupled to the atmosphere. That requires a different kind of a modeling.
[00:16:13] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it. And I think I'm affiliated with the Natural Capital Project at Stanford, which is basically a giant set of models. So everything you just said makes eminent sense.
We're going to come back to climate. Well, actually we're going to be talking about climate all through in a sense. And I want just talk about the Galápagos because that's such an interesting part of your experiences.
You've done a lot of work there through Penn Global projects, and as many in our audience know that is a hotbed for biological research going back to Darwin. And you know, we think of Darwin's finches and a whole bunch of related items.
[00:16:49] What makes it an interesting place to study right now?
[00:16:13] Michael Weisberg: Okay. So, Galápagos is a really very special place. What inspired Darwin, and I think what inspires us to this day is that for one reason or another, the Polynesians never found it and people more or less left it alone until pretty much the 20th century. Even in Darwin's day, there were very few people around. This is partly because there's very little freshwater there, but what that has meant is that 95% of its native biodiversity is still intact.
Another volcanic chain that we're all familiar with, Hawaii, has about 5% of its native biodiversity. I just got back from Antarctica, and there's no place on earth that's untouched by humans and directly on indirectly. But Galápagos is a place that is at one extreme of being really ecologically intact.
And also it's a place that, because it's a series of volcanic islands, that means that as they emerged from the ground within the last 10 million years, the oldest ones are only nine, 10 million years old, everything that got there had to sort of swim there, fly there, or be transferred by humans. And so, it's a really good place to study evolution.
Now, it's also a really interesting place to study ecology because it's a interesting ecosystem, although it's only the equator, it's more like the Bay Area and it's climate than it is the Amazon. It's very dry.
For me, it's what's really interesting is it's really a laboratory of everything else too. So you have 97% of Galápagos National Park, but 3%, it's not. And you have a growing population of 3%.
So, I'm interested in the relationship between those humans and the non-humans and the rest of the national park. When this national park boundary was drawn in the late 1950s when the national park was created, very little thought was given to the humans that were there because there were fewer than 2000 of them. But now there's almost 40,000 people and very, very little attention has been paid kind of systematically to that.
What we do there, we call our work socially ecology, and we're interested in general the question of human nature relationships and the methods that we try to use as often as possible are ones that draw the local community into the research.
So to give you an example, we studied the effects of humans on the behavior of sea lions. So Galápagos sea lion is a very common species that one sees there. Instead of going just into the wilderness areas, we actually looked at the behavior on beaches that are in the town in this island that we work on and looked at beaches that are of different levels of human disturbance.
But when I say we looked at, I mean, while we really worked on designing the research protocols and we worked on some of the analysis, we worked on those things with community members and it was community members who collected these data.
So we have 21 months of data collected by community members, and that actually showed something about the behavior of the sea lions as changing in response to the level of disturbance on the beach.
And so, we have similar projects that are more health oriented, we have projects that are more climate change oriented, and we've even experimented a little bit with sort of green business and how... because the population's growing, people want to be doing things, but they're 600 miles off the coast of the mainland and there's basically one industry which is tourism.
And so, that's the kind of thing that we've been involved in. So it's sort of both the social ecology but also the engagement of the local community in doing research.
And just turning to climate, so the climate issue we study there is the issue called adaptation. So the protection of people and ecosystems against the adverse climate impacts.
And it's interesting that including the community not only gives us access to data that we wouldn't have otherwise, but also I think it really... Ultimately, in this community and every other one, we're going to have to ask people to make pretty profound changes in how they live, not just for the mitigation side, like lowering their carbon footprint, but also they might have to move as the sea level changes. They're going to have to not build in certain ways because it's going to be hotter and wetter and other things.
My thought has been, if we now in the sense of policy makers, the international community, the national government really wants people to make those changes, it would be really good if those people that have to make those changes are the ones that discovered that the changes need to be made. And that's one of the reasons why we think that taking this approach of community scientists is so central to our work there.
But anyway, this is a slice through it. I mean, the really cool thing from a institutional point of view is we have philosophers collaborating with biologists, collaborating with public health people, vets, and those people in the school of design and urban planners. And it's a very wide-ranging thing and a lot of the actual on the ground, nitty-gritty stuff is actually being done by Penn students who spend their summer—
[00:21:31] Ramanan Raghavendran: I was going to ask the question. So these are undergraduates, these are grad students?
[00:21:35] Michael Weisberg: It's a mixture. So the current set up, this thing called the Penn Global Research Institute supports four undergraduates and two graduate students, and then there's a number of other graduate students in postdocs who helped out.
[00:21:47] Ramanan Raghavendran: And do you end up having to choose four undergraduates from 4,000 who want to be on this program?
[00:21:53] Michael Weisberg: It's definitely a popular thing to do. We tell them that this is the flagship project of Penn Global and that we're quite demanding. So it's a year long commitment and we expect people to at whatever level of Spanish proficiency that they're at to get to the next level of it. So that's really good.
We also have some other kinds of engagements. So there's something called Penn Global Seminars, which are a course that has a travel component. I also lead one to Galápagos there, and it's drawn a lot of people in.
My PhD student usually find some way to spend time there anyway. But in this project with the four undergraduates and the two graduate students, it's two months on the ground, there's a homestay component, so they really get to know the community well, and it's really terrific.
And I think the most important thing that I've learned doing this sort of work is... Actually, it's going back here and over and over again. I guess, I've been there 16, 17 times, and that's when the community begins to actually accept you.
Lots of people turn up and say, "Oh, I'm going to do this thing, I'm going to do that thing," but when we come and we're wearing those light blue polo shirts that we have that have our logo on it, they know who we are and we develop good local partnerships this way.
[00:22:59] Ramanan Raghavendran: Got it. And on another occasion, I'll try and convince you that having an alumnus or two there would add to the scientific mission, but I think I'll need to work hard on that argument.
[00:23:08] Michael Weisberg: I think we should make a trip specifically for that purpose. We can bring all the greatest people there and there's plenty that you would find engaging.
[00:23:19] Ramanan Raghavendran: I love it. I'm going to ask a question about the IPCC. You were a contributing author and reviewer for the 6th Assessment Report.
[00:23:27] Tell us briefly, how would a philosopher of science, which is what you are, approach a project like this?
[00:23:34] Michael Weisberg: Okay. So, I can't say here I was the pioneer. There have been others, both philosophy of science and ethicists working on this.
The IPCC is a relatively inclusive organization, and in part it's because the IPCC recognizes that climate change. Most people just think of it as a physical science issue.
I mean, since I know that you're involved in supporting climate tech, you know that it's also an engineering issue, but of course it's also a huge social science issue and a biological issue and a normative issue and all these other things.
So the IPCC tries very hard to actually have not only a wide national representation, but also intellectual representation across the board. And so, that's the way that I've done it.
The funny story of being an author this time is because I had been a reviewer in the past, and it happened that the... The way that the IPCC works is... Well, there's a long process to get to this point, but each chapter has, they're called coordinating lead authors.
And so, the coordinating lead author for the chapter that I contributed to liked some of my review comments so much, he said, "Hey, would you be willing to rewrite some things and write some new things along these lines?" And a lot of people's IPCC stories start that way. So, I mean, that's how many things start, right? But it works a bit like that.
[00:24:48] Ramanan Raghavendran: I'm going to switch gears a little bit and switch to another t-shirt you wear, which is that in addition to your academic work, you've also served as an advisor to the United Nations and the Republic of Maldives.
[00:25:03] Tell us a little bit about this work and how it compares to and compliments your academic pursuits.
And again, I want to tie this back to a public perception of what it means to be an academic philosopher, and the contrast between that model, so to speak, and the reality of what you, Michael Weisberg, have actually done and do.
[00:25:27] Michael Weisberg: On the very latter point, you might be in a better position than I am. It's hard to look from within, but I can say... Well, I'll work my way in. I mean, I always say that I'm...
I've been a department chair a long time, and two things have prepared me best for being a department chair, being a parent and being a diplomat. So that tells you something about being a department chair.
On the, maybe then, the skillset thing, one of the things that I think philosophical training does is prepares you well to see a really complex problem, to be able to abstract it to a manageable degree to see which details are important and which ones aren't, and to see what's really important, what's at the root of things.
I suspect this is why philosophy majors often do really well on the LSAT and do really well going into law school, or I know others who've done really well in your world, who just really thrive in a place where the rules are not really set and you have to actually... You get a lot of information coming at you and you have to impose some order on it in order to move forward.
And so, a lot of this world of science diplomacy is what I call this thing that I'm doing is like that. So you have huge amounts of technical information, most of which is not very comprehensible to your average diplomat. And then huge amounts of complexity caused by 194 countries trying to work together. And often that's incredibly challenging, which the scientists tend to not really appreciate.
And for one reason or another, I mean, some of it I can blame on my philosophical training and some of it's just I somehow impatient enough to do this. I can put one foot in each side. And I think that that's really what I've been able to do successfully.
So I can basically work my way through any scientific paper in climate change, biodiversity, anything like that. It doesn't mean I'll understand every detail, but I don't...
I have a lot of experience doing that. And I also then am pretty good as a... I've been a teacher a long time, I can explain it to people clearly. And then on the other side, I actually find the challenge of, "Okay, so here's the problem we're trying to solve diplomatically. Maybe I know that this thing over here is the optimal solution, but that's not available to us. So here's where all the different sides are, what's possible."
And sometimes what's possible is something that nobody's put on the table yet because there's something that's actually not just acceptable to all sides, but actually could be enthusiastically embraced by all sides, and it just hasn't been seen yet.
So, that's kind of the role that I play. Very rarely do I ever speak into a microphone. I have done it on occasion for certain things, but mostly what I'm trying to do is work mostly on the ideas' side.
I'm a part of this small team that's a academic, quasi-academic team. So it's me, it's a colleague at Perry World House, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, who would be a fascinating guest for you at some point. And then he's also the director of something called the International Peace Institute. He's also the former high commissioner for human rights and lots of other cool things. And then he's got a colleague there who used to be a negotiator for Guatemala.
So the three of us together are a really good team of working through ideas and strategy and then together supporting, in the case of Maldives, really supporting the minister. And she is incredibly progressive. Maldives' very vulnerable country, but with incredibly brilliant leadership and huge amounts of intellectual power. So she's been able to be this incredible voice for climate and for some of these issues that I'm interested in.
And the thing that Maldives lacks as a country with half a million people is they don't have a University of Pennsylvania supporting them. They don't have... Her ministry has a dozen people working in it, and they have to work on energy and water and other things too.
So being able to be present there and also being able to think about all and digest all the IPCC stuff and all the... what we know that the other diplomats are saying and say, "Here, this is the range of possibilities," that's a lot of what I actually do.
I know I've kept it at a very vague level, but just really specifically, really quickly, I work on basically two sets of issues. One are these issues called adaptation, which is the effects of climate change on people and ecosystems. And there's being negotiated right now something called the global goal on adaptation because we have a global goal on mitigation, that's 1.5; we have a global goal on finance, which is right now a $100 billion per year mobilized.
The global goal in adaptation, it's established by the Paris Agreement in this formal diplomatic language of established, but it's not actually spelled out. So one of the things I work on is that, and the other thing is this issue of loss and damage, which was the headline issue at COP 27.
Loss and damage refers to climate impacts that can't be stopped and can't be protected against. So things like territorial loss, loss of ecosystems, loss of culture, so forth.
[00:30:06] Ramanan Raghavendran: I have one more question for you to finish us off, but I have to ask a follow-up question because the work with the Maldives in particular with the Republic sounds just fascinating.
You have only so many hours in the day. Do you see yourself doing more sort of direct governmental work of this kind? Or is this where stops?
[00:30:31] Michael Weisberg: Oh, is my dean going to listen to this? I love that part of the work that I've done.
To me right now, it's the most exciting thing. And so, it's not... I don't see myself going into government if that's what you mean, but this kind of work, the being involved in that process and providing the information-
[00:30:50] Ramanan Raghavendran: Yeah, that's what-
[00:30:51] Michael Weisberg: …I mean, I love that work, and that's really what...
I think many people, the pandemic made me really think about what is it that I want to do with my life when I grow up, that is what's most exciting to me because I think it actually suits me well. I think that's...
As we've been talking about, what philosophy is and what it does and what it's trained me for, I think it's trained me for that. That's what I love doing.
[00:31:12] Ramanan Raghavendran: I just want to say two thumbs up and hooray for that. In various settings, not just my Penn involvement, I deal with a lot of people from the academic world, and I've felt for a long time that we need more public intellectuals. And the definition of a public intellectual is also one that is a movable feast. It doesn't have to be someone who's constantly writing for the New Yorker, it could be someone who is advising the Republic of the Maldives.
[00:31:36] Michael Weisberg: Well, and actually on that, I mean, it's interesting that you say that, and I don't know if your audience is very academic, but the thing that you mentioned, like writing an op-ed, that has generally been what most academics think it means to do public intellectual work. This is terrific. If you can...
I mean, it's very hard to get an op-ed placed in the New York Times, no matter who you are. I assume that President Biden can do it when he likes, but all the rest of us have to wait in line. But there are so many other ways, and actually probably many of the most effective ways involve working with ministers, working with kind of high level, but high technical level people in governments. Also, obviously, as you can imagine, in this job, spent a lot of time with the United States of America's negotiating team and the European Union's negotiating team and the government of Australia.
So developing those relationships and that actual true diplomatic skills like doing that is super important. It doesn't fit obviously into the normal boxes of academic life. So it really does mean you need to be very secure in your place. But I have tenure and full professor, good time to do this sort of thing.
[00:32:44] Ramanan Raghavendran: Thanks. And more full professors with tenure or should frankly use that status to do the many things that you have done. Okay. I'm going to take us to our last question.
[00:32:54] Michael Weisberg: Okay.
[00:32:55] Ramanan Raghavendran: And it's science resistance and resistance to scientific findings has a long lineage in history. And just picking from the topics of the moment, it's climate change denial, it's COVID-19 denial, it's vaccine denial and hesitation, it's evolutionary denial. This resistance often gets lumped together.
[00:33:15] What would you say are the similarities and differences between these various forms of resistance to scientific findings or in fact, are they all the same thing?
[00:33:55] Michael Weisberg: Yeah. I mean, they're not all the same thing, but the contemporary ones, they tend to ride together there. There's not just one factor, but there's a couple of factors that are worth mentioning. So one is that a lot of denial is not at its root science denial. It's actually something about cultural identity. And this was very obvious in COVID-19, is that these issues polarized along political or sometimes along religious ideological lines. And people to say...
I mean, it's a little bit less true now, but for a long time to say you were against climate change meant to say to hell with Al Gore. And so, that's real and been documented, that it really...
There was a study about these Kentucky farmers who everyone would tell you they don't believe in climate change, but they spent a lot of money buying very precise maps about changes in temperature at a very micro level so they would know exactly which seeds to plant and on what date.
So if you look at people's behavior, it's clear that the proposition, "I accept climate change," doesn't actually mean I accept climate change. It means something else then. There's definitely that.
But something that I think is more interesting because it's something that we can do something about is that, and this is what we've discovered in our work, that the strength of that kind of polarization is also dependent on how much people appreciate the scientific, real scientific method, subtleties about how science actually works, and in particular, how people understand that scientific knowledge is always tentative. Not that it's not reliable, not that it's not well confirmed, but that science is kind of...
The science we learned in school was like, "This is what Avogadro's number is, and this is the molecular weight of water, and this is..." But actual science as it's actually practiced, especially at the edge of our knowledge, has uncertainty.
And so, if your image of science is like you learned in high school, the atomic weight of gold and those sorts of questions, then you're going to look at kind of the way that scientists talk about climate change and say, "Well, this is obviously just all tentative, and why is that opinion as good as any other?"
So I think that one of the things that we can do is actually improve the way that we teach science, both in the formal system but also in all the informal spaces that we teach science: museums, naturalist guides, everything else. And the media has a big role to play in this too, to really explain about the development of scientific knowledge and the tentativeness of scientific knowledge.
So I think that's a huge part of it and something that we can do something about. This is what I've done a lot of work on and done it in collaboration with my wife, Deena Skolnick Weisberg is at Villanova.
And the last thing I'd say is, interestingly enough, there's this interesting social psychology scale that looks at basically at open-mindedness. So it has to do with tolerance of ambiguity, how important authority is, and the people who are more open-minded in this kind of technical sense and especially who can be tolerant of ambiguity are just much more likely to fall into the scientific norm regardless of where they are politically or religiously.
So I think those are the interesting things to look at. We know that there is political and religious polarization about Covid and vaccines and evolution and climate change, but what's the structure under that? And I think that these are some of the things under it.
So I really, really think we should be really be emphasizing scientific methods and not the five step scientific method in elementary school textbooks, but something much more subtle. A great resource for this, if anyone's interested, is this project from Berkeley called Understanding Science. It's undsci.berkeley.edu.
It's fabulous. I was a little involved in it, in full disclosure, but the people that run it are just terrific. And it was designed to try to deepen the way that scientific methods are taught and actually provide tools for K-16 instructors to teach us in a classroom, but it's great for everybody.
[00:37:18] Ramanan Raghavendran: Thank you for that. And that just raises 1000 related questions, including whether we're now in a low trust society and how we solve for that and teaching about science. But we're going to save that for our follow-up podcast because we have barely scratched the service.
Michael, I want to thank you for your time. This was absolutely fascinating. Each one of these questions is an episode by itself, and unfortunately for you, we may put you through that. So, thank you again, and-
[00:37:46] Michael Weisberg: It is a great pleasure and really nice to talk to someone who's so engaged in these issues, of course, and look forward to our future podcasts on each one of these questions.