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Okay, this is bugging me.

Last night was the first of this year’s run of Nine Lessons And Carols For Godless People, a science-themed comedy and variety show orchestrated by Robin Ince. The second show is presumably in full swing as I type this, and I’ll be going myself on Friday. Reviews of last night’s show were already plentiful when I checked this morning, because we live in the future now, where the internets know everything and information moves at the speed of lol.

And while people’s opinions of the comedy and music and overall presentation differ somewhat, everyone is agreeing on one thing, which made for the most remarkable section of the evening.

Johnny Ball has lost his shit.

I’d have to be a little older than I am to be among those who consider this man a childhood hero, but he’s definitely someone I remember seeing on TV maybe 15 years ago, and he was definitely awesome. There’s also no doubt that he seemed on fine form at Boffoonery a few weeks back. (Apparently I never got around to reviewing my evening there. Summary: it was great.)

But apparently last night he really went off on one, launching into an extended rant about how we’ve got it wrong about all this “global warming” nonsense. By all accounts it was an uncomfortable spectacle. Botogol wasn’t impressed even before he got onto global warming; misswiz reckoned that only a minority of the audience actively heckled, though the rest could muster no more than polite applause when he finally left; the New Humanist found it a surreal moment in the middle of an otherwise enjoyable evening; and comedy website Chortle talked a surprising amount about science, and seemed among the least concerned of the commentators that he wasn’t actually being funny.

I think this latter was actually the main complaint for most people. Nobody was shouting or booing at him until he was already well over his allotted time, and it sounds like he was droning on without being very entertaining. I think a crowd in a good mood, like this lot probably were, could tolerate someone with some kooky bad science for ten minutes if it was at least sort of funny. But it sounds like it wasn’t funny, and after it had gone on for ages people started using the lack of funny as motivation to start heckling him for being wrong.

Of course, there’s also the assumption here that he is wrong.

Before I go any further, I’ll clarify that I’m not seeking to cast significant doubt on this assumption. From the informed responses I’ve heard, it seems that all Johnny Ball had last night were over-simplified arguments that fail to make a significant scientific case, and have already been refuted by people who actually know what they’re talking about.

But I’m not one of those people. I still have to defer to the scientific consensus on this kind of thing. When looking at the facts of the climate change debate, I can’t distinguish at a glance the sound science from the ideology-driven nonsense. If Johnny Ball is deviating from the position generally held by most scientists, that probably means he’s done more research into this than I have. He’s probably also still wrong, but how many people in the audience would really have been able to explain why?

Having said that, I’m not in a position of complete ignorance. I do know some things relevant to the issue of climate change. I know that science is awesome, that rigorous application of the scientific method is our best hope for approaching any sort of truth, and that there is currently an overwhelming scientific consensus which tells us certain things: that there is something going on with our planet’s climate which we need to be aware of, which we need to start taking some kind of responsibility for, and which we need to start considering how to respond to if we want this ball of rock floating in space to remain in any way a comfortable place to live.

If Johnny Ball also knows those things, I’m very doubtful that he also knows enough other secret scientific information, which the majority of actual scientists don’t seem to have picked up on yet, to support his position.

But – and here we finally get to the part that’s really been bugging me – I don’t necessarily think Johnny Ball is a denialist. I think he’s wrong, but it doesn’t automatically follow that he’s an ideological nutjob who can’t be reasoned with.

The point is even stronger in the case of James Randi.

This whole thing really kicked off after Randi, the man for whom the term “arch-skeptic” may very well have been invented, published an article on this subject. Representative of the general reaction from the skeptical community is PZ Myers: James Randi joins the ranks of the climate change denialists. The Lay Scientist was even harsher.

Here’s an extract from a quick back-and-forth I followed on Twitter earlier, between Brian Thompson and PZ:

AmSci: Randi may be wrong, but anyone who says “I’m not sure” isn’t a denialist.
PZ: Wrong. That’s a standard pose by the denialists!
AmSci: That’s because they’re posing. Randi isn’t. There’s a difference between honest doubt and dishonest doubt.

I think that Brian’s (AmSci’s) initial statement is somewhat over-simplified in the other direction, but he’s only working with 140 characters. And his latter response is exactly right. It’s infuriating when 9/11 “truthers”, or Moon landing hoax conspiracy nuts, or Glenn Beck, take some insanely contrary position, make a stream of ludicrous arguments against a well established idea, and respond to all rational argument by insisting “Hey, I’m just asking questions“. But the reason it’s infuriating is that it’s being used as a ploy, and it’s transparently obvious that their feigned naïve innocence is a front for a position they’ve already committed themselves to.

I don’t see any reason to suppose that Randi is being so disingenuous, or that he deserves to be bundled into the “denialist” camp because of this article. I’m going to go through what he says paragraph by paragraph and see if I can find anything truly objectionable. Follow along here.

An unfortunate fact is that scientists are just as human as the rest of us…

This is literally true. Randi’s not denying that the scientific process of peer review is the best way to approach the truth, but pointing out that the human element is always going to be fallible and subject to natural human biases, however much we strive to overcome them.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)…

This paragraph just reports some facts about who’s saying what – the IPCC “has issued several comprehensive reports” on their position, while The Petition Project also exists with a certain number of dissenting voices. No conclusions are drawn from this data yet.

Happily, science does not depend on consensus…

This whole paragraph seems to be a perfectly sensible description of the scientific method, and the “humility in the face of facts” approach to understanding the Universe. Can’t see any problems here.

History supplies us with many examples where scientists were just plain wrong about certain matters, but ultimately discovered the truth through continued research. Science recovers from such situations quite well, though sometimes with minor wounds.

Still uncontroversial. He’s not trying to undermine the value of science, like many anti-science loons who like to point out that science has been wrong about stuff before, and claim that therefore it can’t be trusted. Science’s ability to respond to its mistakes is its greatest strength. Randi gets this.

I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid. I base this on my admittedly rudimentary knowledge of the facts…

This, I suppose, is the bit that’s got everyone all a-fluster. And I’ve got to say, I was expecting worse. I mean, he’s a denialist, he’s joined the fringe cranks, he’s “barely coherent”? I’ve understood every word he’s said so far. I don’t agree with all his conclusions, but come on. Disagreeing with you does not equate to being incapable of effective communication.

“I strongly suspect” is a carefully measured phrase, and he’s well aware of the rudimentary nature of his knowledge. He’s looked at the situation, borne in mind that he’s not an expert, and formed his own summary, while seemingly retaining the capacity to learn more about it as his understanding develops. At least, that’s what I take from phrases like “this my amateur opinion, based on probably insufficient data”, anyway.

It appears that the Earth is warming…

The next few paragraphs are simply about the data we have, and not too much about what anyone thinks it means. The atmosphere is 0.04% carbon dioxide, and CO2 is a vital molecule for plant life. Nobody’s saying that this disproves anything. It’s just background info.

At the end he starts leaning toward an actual conclusion again:

And as far as humans are concerned, ten times more people die each year from the effects of cold than die from the heat. This a hugely complex set of variables we are trying to reduce to an equation…

Some people are reading this as if he’s trotting out the tedious old line so elegantly summarised at ifglobalwarmingisrealthenwhyisitcold.blogspot.com. I don’t think that’s his point at all, though. Okay, the thing about more people dying from cold than from heat doesn’t seem pertinent – I don’t think anybody’s saying that global warming’s bad because the sun’s going to boil people alive – but it’s a piece of data, not a philosophical opinion or practical conclusion. He clarifies it a little further down:

In my amateur opinion, more attention to disease control, better hygienic conditions for food production and clean water supplies, as well as controlling the filth that we breathe from fossil fuel use, are problems that should distract us from fretting about baking in Global Warming.

This is Randi’s value judgment on what seems most important, when all the problems facing the world are considered. That’s his personal judgment call. It’s not mine. (Mine is to mostly hold back and tentatively do what the clever people tell me.) But neither, as far as I can tell, is it one driven by an ideological opposition to climate change science, or by a political agenda, and neither is it held with any measure of arrogant certainty.

Randi’s a smart guy. He has an excellent track record of being honest, interested, and well versed in critical thinking. He knows about being wrong, and being fooled, and science, and questioning everything you think you know. Perhaps he’s been insufficiently diligent in following the good science through, on this occasion, and not performed a proper examination of how the scientific consensus came to be so strongly supported. But a lot of his biggest fans and fellow arch-skeptics seem fine with immediately deciding that he’s cast his lot in with the “deniers” and that there’s little more to be said about it, as if he were suddenly a tragically lost cause.

I don’t know much about Johnny Ball, but if there’s anyone I’d credit with the ability to change his mind based on the objective assessment of new information, it’s James Randi. But I’ve seen a lot less helpful and informative presentation of new information than I’ve seen shouting about denialism, and it’s starting to make me think that Jack of Kent was right all along.

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