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Posts Tagged ‘global warming’

Yeah, I’m calling people names again. Don’t blame me, Simon Singh started it. The big eejit.

There’s been a bit of discussion on Twitter today about the use of the word “skeptic”, particularly as it applies to things that most of the skeptical community wouldn’t want to be associated with.

People who go against the body of scientific evidence supporting the fact of anthropogenic climate change, for instance, are sometimes labelled “global warming skeptics”. Other people who believe some very strange things about the HIV virus are “AIDS skeptics”. There’s even “9/11 skeptics” (though less common than “truthers”) for people who believe that a massive aeroplane is entirely incapable of doing significant damage to a building and the structural integrity of steel couldn’t possibly be compromised by prolonged intense heat.

Clearly not everyone’s using the word “skeptic” the way some of us would hope. It’s being used to just mean someone who disbelieves something, but I hope anyone who identifies as a skeptic in general will appreciate that there’s a bit more to it than that.

Skepticism is an approach to assessing reality, which places importance on the concepts of testing ideas and maintaining caution against cognitive biases and other such logical windfalls which often lead us to believe things that aren’t true.

It’s not just about saying “Nah, I don’t buy it” to any claim anyone ever makes. Rejecting the scientific consensus in an area that’s not your speciality, or foregoing a simple explanation in favour of a vast and unsupported conspiracy, do not constitute skeptical behaviour.

So maybe we should call it something else.

There’s been some controversy before about the usefulness of applying the term “denialist” to some of these non-skeptics, and whether reflexively branding thusly anyone who disagrees with you is a constructive way of doing science. But denialism is a real thing, with specific parameters and symptoms, so it can be a meaningful descriptor if judiciously applied.

There’s an alternate suggestion which has been around for a while, supported by Simon Singh in an article from April 2009, and recently revisited at a talk he gave at QEDcon: numpties.

I like this. There’s something soft, harmless, almost good-naturedly charming about the word. It’s not like calling someone a fuckwit, which has a much more intrinsically hostile feel. “Numpty” is something you’d call your boyfriend after he dropped a plate. It’s something you’d say whilst affectionately tousling someone’s hair.

Of course, let’s not start throwing it around too liberally. Not everyone who doesn’t fully buy into the currently accepted scientific line on climate change is a numpty. Many of them are no doubt well intentioned but misinformed – and maybe some of them even know something the rest of us don’t. It’s always worth checking.

But some people are persisting in their delusion, repeating the same canards, cherry-picking the same data, and avoiding the intellectually honest conclusions that they should be reaching after a full assessment of the facts. James Delingpole, for instance, is a worthy wearer of the numpty crown.

Hat-tip to Kash Farooq for raising a topic I actually managed to have an opinion on.

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– The Amateur Scientist’s Fat Jesus art contest is just the awesomest thing since the last totally awesome thing. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this idea before, it’s so brilliant. Rebecca Watson’s winning, obviously.

– Remember those leaked emails that revealed how all this global warming malarkey was just one big massive hoax conspiracy by dastardly scientists in the pocket of Big Weather? Yeah, not so much. The UK’s Parliamentary Science & Technology Committee have released their report, detailing the findings of their investigation into the “scandal”, and have found “no reason… to challenge the scientific consensus” of anthropogenic climate change. The scary-sounding talk of using a “trick” and “hiding the decline” was people being casual with the language, using colloquial terms that might sound incendiary when removed from all context, and there was no evidence of systematic fraud of any kind. So, shush now. (H/T to PZ.)

– … You know, when I decided to do a quick link round-up and save my latest scathing anti-theistic rant until tomorrow, I was sure I had more than two links to talk about.

– Actually, Jack of Kent is providing some interesting commentary again. The House of Commons Delegated Legislation Committee, which is apparently a thing we have in this country, voted yesterday on a reduction of what are called “conditional fee arrangements” (or CFAs), which (if I’m getting this right) are the bonuses to their fees that lawyers can claim in certain types of “no win, no fee” cases. Mr of Kent is very much in favour of the proposed reduction in CFA uplift, but it was blocked yesterday by a number of MPs, including Tom Watson. Mr Watson has today explained his decision to oppose this particular change, while supporting a reform of the libel laws in general. It seems well thought out and articulate, and I do tend to find it encouraging when people expend this much thought and effort on important decisions.

Jack of Kent is not impressed, however. Specifically, he finds Mr Watson’s claim that the proposed change “could significantly reduce the chances of people receiving justice” to be entirely without supporting evidence. Even though I have only a tenuous grasp of what’s going on, I’m actually quite enjoying all this. Watching these discussions happen on Twitter in real time is sort of like a soap opera, only interesting.

And amidst all this, and with Simon Singh’s big decision tomorrow morning, there’s no better time to sign the libel reform petition, wherever in the world you might be. This is one of those things to actually give a shit about, people.

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Well, there were other things I was hoping to get around to blogging about today. But I’m only one (lazy) man, and the Randi-centric climate change fiasco is still rendering my gears thoroughly ground.

The man himself posted some follow-up remarks today. Here are some of the things he said, to clarify his position on the question of anthropogenic global warming:

My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable. I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.

So the scientific consensus position is, in Randi’s eyes, “quite probable”. That’s not denial. That’s a long way from denial. It’s not quite the opposite extreme, and he’s inching nearer to equivocation than most actual scientists on this point, but he’s still broadly, tentatively, accepting the science.

Regarding the Petition Project, of which he said yesterday: “I strongly suspect that The Petition Project may be valid”, based on his “admittedly rudimentary knowledge”, Randi now says:

I admit that I was unaware of the true nature of the Petition, and I thank Dr. Plait — and several others — who pointed me to this reference and a much better grasp of the situation.

Phil Plait had pointed out to Randi that the project had been examined and found wanting by e-skeptic, among other sources. Randi seems to have taken this on board, expanded his knowledge to a slightly less rudimentary state, and adjusted his views accordingly. That’s not really what denialists do.

Many have commented that this is the kind of thing Randi ought to have known about before publishing his article in the first place, and I think they’re right. I think he made a mistake in conducting insufficient research before espousing a position. But being neglectfully unaware of evidence is a very different mistake from wilfully disregarding important evidence when it’s presented to you. I was willing to give Randi the benefit of the doubt that he wouldn’t be guilty of the latter, and so far it doesn’t seem that he has.

When the awesomely named James Hrynyshyn corrected him on some technical data he’d referred to, Randi responded:

I’m still trying to find where I discovered this gem of text. I suspect that “cooled” should have been “warmed,” but my currently chemo-altered encephalon stumbled… Both my enecephalon and I stand corrected.

Again, he made a mistake, and accepts the correction. He’s aware that recent health problems may have left him in a less than optimal condition to fully analyse all the data and make a truly effective skeptical assessment of the situation, and admits that he slipped up.

Some are saying that, if he knows he’s not on top form right now, he shouldn’t be posting controversial articles that go against the scientific mainstream and haven’t been rigorously checked for factual soundness. This may well be so, but it’s still not this particular criticism that’s bothering me.

What bugs me is the degree to which people abandon nuance, or any attempt to be measured, and are still calling him a denialist.

In particular, I think PZ is way off.

This was a case where Randi ought to have either a) admitted simple error, or b) recused himself from the argument, citing a lack of information.

Well, I’m pretty sure I saw him do the former several times, in today’s follow-up article, the one we’re both talking about.

PZ also talks about the “pernicious tactics” of denialists, and the way they…

…falsely state that there is a respectable middle ground of “the scientists aren’t sure” when the science hammers home over and over again that they are pretty damned sure.

And while this is certainly an infuriating tactic often used by the intellectually dishonest, I cannot fathom what he thinks Randi’s doing that’s so pernicious. I have every confidence that Randi is doing his best to call it how he sees it, and assimilate new information honestly along the way. This isn’t to say that how he sees it and how he’s calling it right now don’t have some serious flaws, but he’s clearly not trying to surreptitiously argue a case against global warming and disguise it with insincere skepticism. Sometimes people who say “I don’t know” actually don’t know.

I quoted the Lay Scientist yesterday, who was kind enough to comment here:

I don’t think Randi is a denialist…the real problem here isn’t that Randi has expressed doubt on climate change, it’s that he’s done it in such a poor way.

That seems like a better position from which to respond. Working from there, someone who knows more about climate change science than I do can give Randi some credit for most likely being smart but suffering a critical research failure, and help explain the facts. That seems the reasonable approach. Phil Plait is one person reacting well to all this. Error should certainly be called out, but some of the reactionary rhetoric going on isn’t helping, and the word “denialist” is tasting more and more bitter to me the more it gets carelessly bandied around.

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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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So yesterday a debate was sparked off on Twitter by the whole Climategate thing. I’m not sufficiently informed on the subject to blog about that in detail, but it seems it’s being dramatically overplayed by people on the side of the debate unconvinced by the science of anthropogenic climate change.

And the fact that I don’t know much about this is sort of what it’s all about. I can tell you almost nothing about the scientific evidence behind the claims that our planet is undergoing significant global climate change, that human activities are partially responsible for this change, and that it will be important for us to actively combat this in the immediate future if we want the world to continue being as nice a place for us to live as it is now. I don’t know the details of why people are firmly convinced of any of those things.

What I do know is that the scientific consensus currently strongly supports these claims. People smarter than me, and who seem to know how to deal well with this kind of complicated subject, seem generally united on this front based on the current evidence. Personally, that’s enough for me, because the extent to which I take an active interest in the subject is limited.

But that’s not enough for everyone. And nor should it be. If I were so inclined, I have a right to ask just what’s going on, to try and pin down what the evidence is, to ask that it be explained to me. I understand there are a number of pop-sci books out there that’ll do just that. (As I say, limited interest.) It seems that it’s been increasingly widely recognised lately that communicating their work to the public is often an important part of a scientist’s job.

Which brings me to the question of how scientists should treat people who don’t agree with their science.

Nobody here is denying that the scientific method is driven by internal debate and constant rigorous questioning, and that all findings need to be subjected to impartial scrutiny and criticism before being taken seriously by the scientific community. But sometimes a theory passes all these tests, continues over time to be increasingly well supported by the data and accurate in its predictions, reaches such a level of empirical support that it seems ridiculous to doubt its basic premise… but some people still do. Some people won’t accept what has become established as fact.

Creationism is a fine example of this, and it seems that some of those who doubt anthropogenic climate change fall into that category also. That’s a slightly awkward phrasing of their position, but the big question is what else to call them. They tend to refer to themselves as climate change “skeptics”, but they often get labelled as “denialists”.

Jack of Kent doesn’t think this term is useful. He points out that it can be used over-zealously to stifle any reasonable debate or dissent, which is antithetical to truly skeptical inquiry, and declares:

I care not if someone is a “denialist”. It is enough for me that they are incorrect.

And he’s right, up to a point. Some people on the side of science may well get exasperated by the more inane end of the spectrum of opposition they have to deal with, and start throwing around terms like “denialist” carelessly at people who are actually no more ignorant of the evidence than I am and might have just set off on the wrong foot. And whether or not somebody is wrong may well be more interesting than the methods by which they’re wrong.

But I’d argue that “denialist” is a meaningful term, when applied to a particular form of fallacious argument, and worth holding on to if we can learn to apply it sparingly. Richard Wilson linked to the denialism blog, which lays out a definition of denialism and explains the techniques of argument generally employed by denialists. This seems valid and useful to me. “Denialist” is not simply a word synonymous with “anyone on the other side” (or shouldn’t be). It means someone arguing in this particular way.

Even if the body of evidence is so strong that there’s really no room left for reasonable doubt, throwing any epithet instinctively at anyone daring to step out of line seems like bad form. To quote myself on Twitter yesterday:

“Denialist” is an appropriate label for some kooks, and a useful way of describing some forms of pseudoscience, but if it’s not clear why you’re right and they’re wrong, to an outside observer you look like a fundamentalist trying to stifle debate.

Meaning that the way to combat wrongness in any form, such as denialism, is with data and rational argument to support your point. Once you’ve provided that and made your case, and responded to everything your opponents have, then you can point out that they seem to be clinging dogmatically to their ideas and exhibiting these crank-like behaviour patterns.

In short, it’s a useful word to have, it often accurately describes people, but it should be used sparingly in public discourse. If you’re going to level a term like “denialist” at an antagonist, you need to really make sure you know where they’re coming from first, and support it with explanations of the logic that they’re failing to appreciate. Don’t start shouting it at people before you’ve exhausted the possibility of persuading them civilly. That just reminds me of the idiots who clamoured to call Carrie Prejean a cunt and helped ensure she was never going to come around to their side, and drove her deeper into crazyville.

Wow, that was long and rambling.

It’s late, so I’ve not proofread or redrafted this as much as usual. I might revisit it tomorrow to make some more sense of it. Thoughts?

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