Heated Argument on Climate Change

“I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”
~ William Lloyd Garrison

I ended up getting in a heated argument with my dad. It wasn’t intentional. If anything, I was trying to avoid it. But I just couldn’t take it anymore.

The discussion began with violence in the media, but somehow made its way to the even more contentious issue of climate change. The latter issue really gets my blood boiling, partly because of how dismissive people like my dad can be. He is an older middle class white male American. He has never experienced most of the externalized costs from environmental problems and likely never will. He’ll probably be dead by the time the shit hits the fan (and he realizes this, as he has increasingly talked about his own mortality now that he is in his 70s).

Part of my dad’s attitude is that he has spent his entire life in positions of authority (army officer, factory manager, private consultant, professor, president of the local Kiwanis group, Church deacon, and on and on). He isn’t used to people challenging him, especially about intellectual topics. Even when he doesn’t know something, he knows how to sound intelligent, confident and generally authoritative. I’m sure I’m one of the few people in his older age who have been willing to challenge him and put his feet to the fire.

He complained that I was treating him with disrespect, and that is what bothers him. It seems to me that he’d rather be un-/misinformed and treated with respect than to risk dealing with uncomfortable truths. The problem is I refuse to respect his ignorance, willful or unintentional, nor to respect his disrespect toward me and toward experts who actually do know what they’re talking about. If he wants respect, then he has to earn it… like everyone else.

* * * *

I don’t know what better response I could have given. I just have my breaking point. No matter what I have ever said, I’ve never been able to get my dad to take any of it seriously. To him, it is some combination of an intellectual exercise and political rhetoric. What it isn’t to him is personally and viscerally real.

He doesn’t understand why it bothers so much we in the younger generations who will spend the rest of our lives dealing with the literal sins of our fathers (and mothers). We have real reasons to be worried about when the bill comes due for the generations of unpaid externalized costs. How can someone like my dad be so heartless toward the well being of his own children and grandchildren? This isn’t just about politics. Lives are at stake. The inevitable suffering isn’t a hypothetical.

I don’t know how to reach him in his state of fearful denial and passive inaction. I know it is overwhelming, as to be almost incomprehensible in its vastness and complexity. We are playing with things we don’t understand. To consider the consequences is no easy task. But that difficulty isn’t a valid excuse.

I feel frustrated. My dad is able to be rational and talk rationally. But this problem ultimately can’t be touched upon with rationality alone. My dad uses rationality as a way to distance himself. Rationality as rationalization. He always has a reason to dismiss the data and those who point to it. The world is full of reasons, too many of them being superficial and self-serving. Oddly but all too typical, my dad uses reason to dismiss reason, which is to say he uses rhetoric as a defense against deeper thinking (and feeling). The climate science is ‘fishy’, he says—no further explanation required in his mind.

I’m not sure if or how I could act differently to (maybe) elicit a different response. It’s obvious that he gets defensive and is polarized. His facade of intellectuality is where he retreats to. So, that is where I meet him, but in reality his demand for respectful reasonableness is just a front he puts on. As long as we are moderate in our emotions and remain politically correct in our language, there is no danger of straying from the status quo and so no danger of becoming too uncomfortable.

The genuine truth and authentic heart of the matter is what is being avoided. Not just facts but what acknowledging those facts would mean. The suffering in the world is immeasurable, even as we can measure the expression of that suffering in concrete problems (rates of poverty, toxicity, mortality, etc). It’s too easy to feel helpless.

Basically, that is what I hear from my dad: What is the point? Let’s just focus on the positive (or at least avoid focusing on the negative) because, in the end, we’re probably doomed.

His worldview is typically Christian, in the mainstream sense. We are all Sinners with a fatal flaw built into our nature, Original Sin. My dad wouldn’t overtly talk in those terms, but that is the sense I get from him. These major problems are caused by human failure and any attempt to deal with them will just lead to ever more and greater failure. The best we can do is to hold our heads down and hope for the best. The suffering of so many people in the world is inevitable, and we who suffer the least should simply count our blessings, but beyond a few token actions of charity there is nothing we can do about the suffering of others, much less the larger systemic problems behind it all.

It is an attitude of defeat, of fatalism and cynicism.

* * * *

On my end, I want to communicate well. But I realize how often I fail at this aspiration. Irritation, exasperation, and outrage easily get the better of me. I’m even known for sometimes being an ornery asshole when you catch me in the right mood.

How could I communicate better? What wording or framing would be able to soften my dad’s defenses and allow real communication to happen?

One thought I had was putting it into the context of one of his own interests, World War II. As I’ve never been a climatologist, my father never fought in WWII. But similarly we both have an interest and have spent many years thinking about these topics, although not as serious scholarly study. It’s just two subjects we each have been focused on throughout our lives. So, what if the situation was turned around and my father was trying to argue something about WWII?

It’s as if I stated strong opinions about WWII bombers and tanks, after having read a few anti-war pieces in the New York Times. And then I dismissed his more informed opinion on the matter. When he pointed to scholarly data and professional opinion, I said that I wasn’t interested in researching it further. Instead, I said it smelled fishy and argued that the historians who supported his view were biased because they profit from getting grants to do research, selling books, and getting gigs on documentaries—not to mention promoting the military-industrial complex, as if their studying about war proves that they want more war to further their careers, whether or not such motivations are conscious.

If I did all of that, it would be highly disrespectful and, from his perspective, simply frustrating. He holds others to a higher standard than he holds to himself and those he agrees with. But he can’t see it that way. It is hard for him to imagine himself in the opposite position.

That goes for me as well. It’s hard for me to fully sympathize with my dad, to take on his worldview. I don’t want to merely be righteous. In the end, I know my dad means well and he actually is intellectually honest, even if he has a hard time coming to terms with this issue.

Still, none of that changes the issue at hand. Climate change is what it is, no matter what we think or feel about it.

* * * *

My dad showed me an article. It is a piece from the Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser: Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate. I wasn’t in the mood to look at it, as I’ve simply grown tired of the pointlessness of it all. And I told him so.

I realize he doesn’t like the term ‘denialist’. But there is good reason why some place that label upon those like Matt Ridley. He has repeatedly shown he isn’t interested in honest debate. His critics have refuted much of his evidence over the years. Yet he never acknowledges any of this science and goes on repeating the same refuted misinformation.

Ridley is denying strongly supported scientific evidence. What should someone like this be called? After a while, the more well informed begin to question the motives of this kind of political activist (actually a politician in this case and also a former chairman of a bailed out and nationalized bank) aligned with big money special interests:

Matt Ridley – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“Ridley is a forthright proponent of fracking. However he has been found to have breached the Parliamentary Code of Conduct by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards for failing to disclose in debates on the subject personal interests worth at least £50,000 in Weir Group, which has been described as, ‘the world’s largest provider of special equipment used in the process’ of fracking.”

He inherited his position at the bank from his father. And his investments in coal mining are from his family’s estates. To put it simply, he was born into wealth and power. And has since spent his life in the corporatist revolving door between big biz and big gov. On top of that, despite pretending to be an authority to be taken seriously, he has absolutely no expertise about climatology.

He represents so much of what is wrong with the world. And that just depresses me.

* * * *

The following are a mix of articles. Many of them are about Matt Ridley. But if you go further down, there are some about other issues: conservatism, libertarianism, national security, and survey data.

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

Biblical historicism and anthropogenic global warming, these are two of the most important issues. They clearly portray the two sides of religion and science, belief vs fact.

I don’t want to get complicated with this post as it would be easy to do so, or at least I don’t want to waste the space explaining the detailed background (something I’ve done many times already). Trying to explain the history, demographics, and psychology behind it all is complex. For my present purposes, I simply want to use these examples to show a trend.

* * * *

I’ve observed many trends in recent years. The trends in biblical studies and climatology interest me because they are so symbolic. Their symbolism allows for a deeper trend to be seen, a trend that I perceive as including or causally related to these many diverse trends.

Over the years, I’ve become aware of how the general public has become increasingly supportive of liberal views, especially what in the past had been considered liberal or even radically leftwing: drug legalization or decriminalization, health care reform with public option or single payer, better government regulation, decreasing inequality, etc.  Oddly, the majority of Americans support these liberal positions even as they label themselves as ‘conservatives’.

So, liberalism has become the new conservatism, by which I mean it is the new public opinion status quo and it is the conservative inclination to defend the status quo. As the old guard of reactionary conservatives dies off and as the younger moderate conservatives come to defend the former liberalism (specifically 20th century liberalism), this will free up the liberal-minded to take on new liberal positions which will be partly defined by the direction in which the leftwing leads.

Nonetheless, the shift isn’t clear. It’s not about liberals defeating conservatives. What is going on is more profound. The very notions of liberalism and conservatism are shifting.

No one can know where to the shift will ultimately lead. If anything, the shift is best understood in terms of something like Spiral Dynamics. Liberals defend science and conservatives defend religion, but not necessarily for intrinsic reasons. Rather, it’s the historical circumstance that puts these two political movements in defense of these two social institutions.

* * * *

Two events got me thinking. First, I was having one of my standard debates about climatology science with a conservative. Second, I was looking at biblical studies books from these past few years. The first is irrelevant other than giving my thinking context for the second.

The book that really got me thinking is a book I haven’t even read, but I did read several very in-depth Amazon.com reviews and the author is someone I’m very familiar with through his other work. The book in question is Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth and the author is Bart D. Ehrman. Even some of the reviewers who agreed with the author’s conclusion didn’t agree with his way of defending it, instead some even thought he had fallen into the traps of apologetics that Ehrman had previously criticized.

Most interestingly, some reviewers noted that it seemed Ehrman was on the defense. This is a new event in biblical studies. Belief in a historical Jesus has been the academic consensus, given that most biblical studies academics are believers and those who aren’t believers are typically former believers. Biblical studies is the only academic field that is so dependent on belief, as both a starting and ending point. The field itself and many if not most academics in it began with apologetics, Ehrman included.

Another academic that began with apologetics is Robert M. Price. Like Ehrman, Price went from believing apologist to non-believing scholar, the apologetics having led to the academic study which in turn led to doubt. The difference between Ehrman and Price is that the former couldn’t let go of the last remnant of biblical literalism (i.e., belief in a historical Jesus) and the latter could let it go. Price, although often a fence-sitter holding no allegiance to a single theory, has gone even further in recent years. He once held to the historical position until he looked at the mythicist position in detail, but Ehrman apparently has refused to look at it in detail and prefers to protect his beliefs by dismissing out of hand anything that would challenge it. The irony in this is immense considering Ehrman is one of the most well known enemies of apologetics.

Anyway, none of that is my concern here. All that interested me is how it has become clear that the table has turned. Mythicists are no longer on the defense and instead historicists are. The arguments and criticisms presented by mythicists has become an insurmountable challenge, as demonstrated by the increasing number of mythicist scholars – besides Robert M. Price, there is: G.A. Wells, Alvar Ellegard, Richard Carrier, Earl Doherty, D.M. Murdock, etc. Add to this the Gnosticism scholars and the disagreement with academic consensus keeps growing.

* * * *

Consensus is an interesting thing in academia.

As I pointed out, biblical studies is the only academic field so fully dominated by believers. The contrast with climatology is immense. Conservatives agree with the biblical studies consensus despite the lack of evidence and conservatives disagree with the climatology consensus despite the surplus of evidence. Their criticisms of science are inconsistent and self-serving. They aren’t being anti-intellectual out of principle (as Richard Hofstadter pointed out, no one is ever anti-intellectual about all issues). Conservatives simply realize that in certain cases the facts contradict their beliefs and so they pragmatically prioritize the latter, even as giving lip-service to the former.

Belief and fact are two very different worldviews. We have lived in a world, despite all the changes, that has remained held in check by ancient beliefs. However, we are finally coming to a point when those ancient beliefs are being challenged.

This is tremendous. Even many non-believers have been unwilling or undesirous of challenging the belief in a historical Jesus. Almost everyone wants a historical Jesus, just as long as it is their preferred version – for example: God born in human form to save mankind, travelling philosopher, enlightened wisdom teacher, failed apocalyptic preacher, political revolutionary, etc. To challenge this belief is to challenge a core assumption of all western civilization.

* * * *

There is one historical detail I will add as my concluding thought. I add it partly for the simple reason that it comes from another book I’m reading: Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650-1750 by Jonathan Israel. As I said, I want to avoid the complexity to the extent I can, but I feel compelled to give a brief view of it.

There was no single Enlightenment (the reason for why there is no single classical liberalism, i.e., liberalism prior to the 20th century; also, why there still is no single liberalism; and, furthermore, why there is no single conservatism). Radical Enlightenment, according to Israel, began in the 17th century with Spinoza; and the proponents of the Radical Enlightenment (such as Paine) led to the reformist progressive liberals and paved the way for socialism. The moderate Enlightenment was a reaction to the radical Enlightenment and led to what Corey Robin calls ‘reactionary conservatism’.

I bring this up to clarify a point. We all are children of the Enlightenment, liberals and conservatives alike. This relates to Hofstadter’s observation that no one is absolutely and consistently anti-intellectual, at least not any modern post-Enlightenment person. The point that is clarified by Israel’s book is that the moderate Enlightenment proponents were wary of reason even as they respected it. They wanted the positive results of reason, but they also wanted to make sure reason was subjugated to religious belief, to hierarchical authority, and to social order. They didn’t want to destroy the aristocracy, just re-create it so that it would be less oppressive and more meritocratic. Both sides argued for reason, although one side argued more radically.

As such, we are still fighting the battle between the radial Enlightenment and the moderate Enlightenment. Should faith be subjugated to reason? Or should reason be subjugated to faith? Should we follow reason as far as it will go? Or should we withhold reason when it gets too close to what we deem fundamental?

For the first time in American history, the radical Enlightenment may be getting a foothold in public opinion and hence in mainstream society. Religion has never been weaker and science has never been stronger.

* * * *

If my observations are correct, this will be an earth-shaking shift and American society will never be the same again. Most people don’t notice the changes, not even most experts in their respective fields. That is the nature of such changes. They go below the radar for they can’t be understood within the present context. It’s a paradigm shift. The ideas planted centuries ago may be finally coming to fruition or at least experiencing a major growth spurt.

Of course, this doesn’t mean the proposed shift will make those on the left happy. It’s not to say that it will make anyone happy. We will all be challenged by it. The precise results can’t be predicted.

Meteorologists: Less Support of Global Warming… why?

Global Warming denialism is a favorite hobby on the right. And a favorite hobby of mine is countering such ignorance. I’ve come to a formulaic response.

I point out that the IPCC is the most respectable international scientific institution that focuses solely on climate change. It’s a very conservative organization. It looks at all the peer-reviewed research and takes years to assess it before putting out a report. It’s conservative because the research is done more quickly than it’s process of assessment and so most of the research it bases its conclusions on is research that has been thoroughly discussed among climatologists. The climatology researchers who submit their work to the IPCC do so without getting any payment and so the climatologists aren’t getting rich off of it.

What conclusion does the IPCC come to? The IPCC concludes that the theory of anthropogenic global warming is supported by the research.

The denialists love ignorantly dismissing the IPCC. So, I sometimes skip even mentioning the IPCC. I often go directly to the data on scientific consensus. Basically, the consensus increases the more that scientists know about climatology research. So, around 80% of all scientists in all fields support anthropogenic global warming, climatologists in general support it even more strongly (I forget the exact percentage), and climatologists who are active researchers who do most of their research directly on global warming have 97% support.

There is, however, new data I came across. Someone mentioned that only 60% of meteorologists support anthropogenic global warming. At first, this seems to cast massive doubt on the scientific consensus. Yes, 60% is still a majority but not a strong majority. This seems like damning evidence. I mean, afterall, shouldn’t meteorologists be some of the scientists who would be most well informed about climatology?

I’m not one to ignore evidence that undermines my own views. I value truth above all else. So, if many meterorologists question anthropogenic global warming, I should take it seriously. But, first, I had to ascertain if this 60% was correct. Yes, it appears to be true as this national survey does show the weak support. Before jumping to conclusions (as a denialist would do), I wanted to understand the possible reasons for this difference between meteorologists and climatologists, this difference between meteorologists and most scientists in general. At the top of the websearch results, I came across the the following article (included below is some excerpts from the article and three helpful comments). To summarize, there are fewer meteorologists supporting anthropogenic global warming because many of them have never studied climatology and many weathermen (and weatherwomen) have no formal scientific education.

Are meteorologists climate experts?
Columbia Journalism Review asks “Why don’t TV weathermen believe in climate change?”

Meteorologists are not required to take a course in climate change, this is not part of the NOAA/NWS [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/National Weather Service] certification requirements, so university programs don’t require the course (even if they offer it). So we have been educating generations of meteorologists who know nothing at all about climate change.

[ . . . ] 

And yet weathermen remain trusted by the public in spite of their lack of actual qualifications:

In the fall of 2008, researchers from George Mason and Yale universities conducted the most fine-grained survey to date about what Americans know and think about climate change….

When asked whom they trusted for information about global warming, 66 percent of the respondents named television weather reporters. That was well above what the media as a whole got, and higher than the percentage who trusted Vice-President-turned-climate-activist Al Gore, either of the 2008 presidential nominees, religious leaders, or corporations. Scientists commanded greater credibility, but only 18 percent of Americans actually know one personally; 99 percent, by contrast, own a television. “Meteorology benefits from the fact that we’re just about the only science that has an individual in people’s living rooms every night,” says Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society. “For many people, it’s the only scientist whose name they know.”

There is one little problem with this: most weathercasters are not really scientists. When Wilson surveyed a broader pool of weathercasters in an earlier study, barely half of them had a college degree in meteorology or another atmospheric science. Only 17 percent had received a graduate degree, effectively a prerequisite for an academic researcher in any scientific field.

This is but one reason — among many — about why the public, especially conservatives, remain uninformed and disinformed about global warming (see “No wonder polling shows more people don’t know the scientific evidence that humans are warming the Earth has grown stronger”).

And yet, for all the misinformation and disinformation they are exposed to, the public still want very much wants government-led action to curtail greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. gmo says:

    It is worth mentioning again that not all “weathermen” are “meteorologists”, as in not everyone who presents the weather in the media has studied the science like in getting a degree in meteorology/atmospheric science. I did not check into the details of the linked studies, but I had thought the numbers were higher for degreed meteorologists and so was a bit surprised. Still many indeed do “get it”, but it is depressing since so many do not, and such people may be the only connection to many in the public with atmospheric science.

    Besides the weatherman (even the one with the solid science background) not necessarily being well-educated on climate in general, I think many meteorologists conflate weather prediction and projections for climate similar to how many in the general public do. Weather prediction has been steadily improving, but there is still plenty of uncertainty, and I believe many meteorologists simply incorrectly sort of assume that there cannot be much certainty in climate projections.

    It may be like if a sailor doubted rising sea levels simply because he spends all his time on oceans with storms, swells, waves, and still water – as those are what he well knows, he simply did not bother to think that there are other ways to know sea level is rising than by looking over the edge of the boat.

    It makes some sense that the public trusts the weatherman on climate (yes, even in spite of all the “only job where you can always be wrong” quips) like was noted more than any politician, even Gore. It would be nice to be able to utilize that trust. That points toward a strategy of highlighting the lack of credibility of the lost like John Coleman and hopefully getting those who understand the science to teach it at least some.

    Meteorologists who think they will lose credibility talking about climate change because it is politicized should consider that if they explained it then it may become less politicized. Also, their not talking about it can lend credence in people’s minds that it is not a relevant issue.

  2. To best understand television, you must know about the consulting services of Frank Magid Associates – just about every TV station will get consulting from them. Until Magid says it is OK to talk climate during the weather segment, it is not going to happen.

    http://www.magid.com/ consulting/ local_television/ index.asp
    TV weather forecasters are professionals that serve a highly competitive broadcasting business model. The TV business pulls in advertising from so many businesses that are connected carbon consumption – every automobile ad, oil company ad, even travel are all vested heavily in the lie. They are required to ignore the science, it is just a business decision.

    That is just the way it is.

  3. 32. Dean: “To paint the majority of meteorologists with a broad brush as buffoons who are incapable of udnerstanding climate science is a bit harsh.”

    It is unclear to me that that is what is happening above. Pointing out the irrefutably obvious point that a meteorologist lacks the expertise to pontificate on the subject of climate science is scarcely the same thing.

    Persons who lack expertise but insist on making declarative announcements that are predicated upon an authority that they do not possess are committing an informal logical fallacy, the argumentum ad vericundiam or “argument from false or misleading authority” http://www.fallacyfiles.org/authorit.html.

    As the article above fairly clearly describes, there is a significant body of persons with a background in meteorology who pose that background as a basis of authority upon which the are authoritatively qualified to pass legitimate judgments upon the scientific findings of climate researchers. Their doing so is a bald-faced argumentum ad vericundiam.

    Now, I’ve taken graduate level courses relating to differential geometry, but that does not make me a researcher in physical cosmology. At best it qualifies me to accurately report what real researchers in the field have come up with. (A qualification which a very few people in the peer-review process agree with, since I’ve actually published on the subject. I’ve some legitimate authority in the areas of logic, critical thinking, and philosophy of science.)

    However, an undergraduate class in physics (of which I’ve had a few) does not make me a physicist. By the same token, an undergraduate class in climate science — WHICH IS MERELY AN OPTION, NOT A REQUIREMENT for students of meteorology — does not qualify said students as experts. It would not qualify them as experts even if said class was a requirement. (And, of course, it is still not, in general, even required.)

    So yes, any thoughtful person with integrity can, with varying degrees of success, accurately report the facts as established by actual researchers — Al Gore is a nice example of this, both for his successes and his failures. But no such person, with no more established expertise than what you describe, is in any position to pass a scientifically legitimate judgment on the subject.

    But such illegitimate judgments are exactly what we are seeing, from persons who will pose as experts on a subject in which they have no legitimate authority what-so-ever. This is not a blanket condemnation of meteorologists; it is a blanket condemnation of poseurs, some of whom use their standing as a “meteorologist” to mask their ignorance with a veil of authority that they do not possess and have done nothing to genuinely earn.

Denialism: Skepticism isn’t a river in Egypt

I’ve had some discussions about science online. I even managed to find some intelligent people to debate with. However, these discussions have caused me to lose faith in human reason. I’ve come to realize that even intelligent people aren’t necessarily well-informed, aren’t necessarily open-minded about other people’s views, aren’t necessarily critical-minded about their own assumptions… nor necessarily desire to be so.

I find myself in an odd position. I’m not a fan of scientific materialism. I don’t claim science is perfect or that it has everything figured out, but the skepticism of many people I’ve met online verges on Nihilism or Pyrrhonism… but, despite this attitude of radical doubt, what makes it particularly irrational is that it’s selective. This selective mistrust falls apart under scrutiny. Part of the reason it falls apart is because of the narrowness of this skepticism. These people are skeptical of everything they disagree with, but oddly completely trusting in everything they agree with. That isn’t true skepticism. I don’t trust anything even when or especially when I agree with it. I think skepticism should even be turned towards our own biases, and skepticism should particularly be turned towards our use of skepticism. 

Some of these people are rightly called Denialists because any evidence I bring up they find a way to dismiss. They don’t need any evidence themselves because from their view all scientific evidence is suspect. They just have a vague intuition. They’ve heard one critical scientist or some other supposed expert and they assume that somehow disproves all of the science. Don’t they realize all science is skeptical. The skepticism of a few scientists doesn’t disprove the consensus of the majority. It’s important to consider the 3% of climatologists who don’t support Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW), but it’s even more important to consider the 97% of active climatology researchers who do support it. A recent IPCC report was shown to have a couple of mistakes. The critics argue that these few minor mistakes (one being a typo) disprove a report that is thousands of pages long and which was contributed to by hundreds of scientists.

One recent discussion, I was able to get the skeptic to agree that maybe just maybe 97% of active climatology researchers support AGW. But he still thought the scientists were biased. I pointed out that these scientists work in different organizations in different countries with funding from many sources. But he still thought the scientists were biased. This is basically a conspiracy theory mindset. No matter what evidence is provided, there is always a reason it can’t be trusted. It’s not that they can’t sometimes bring up a few facts here and there (some connection involving financing or whatever), but the facts they use is very selective.

To counter my conspiracy theory allegation, one person denied this by saying it was more like something that got started and then all the climatologists jumped on. This person couldn’t explain how something just gets started and why climatologists would risk their entire careers to join in on this non-conspiracy conspiracy. For example, climatologists get no payment for submitting research to the IPCC. Climatologists don’t get wealthy off of their research and so what would they get out of deceiving the public? Many of these skeptics argue that the government is intentionally biasing research by which research they fund, but scientists get their funding from non-government organizations as well. One skeptic argued that climatology researchers who propose disaster scenarios will get more funding because the government will want to fund research that might help avoid disasters. That might be true to an extent, but scientists are doing research about all kinds of things. If something doesn’t prove true or potentially true, then it loses funding. Why would the government fund and why would 97% of researchers support a theory that had absolutely no evidence in support of it? It’s simply absurd to make such a claim.

I’m fine with being skeptical in terms of using good critical thinking skills, but Denialism goes way beyond that. The skeptic who I managed to get to grudgingly agree that the 97% might be true wouldn’t even admit to slight doubt about his own position. I admitted to him that there were skeptical scientists and that these skeptics played a valid role in the scientific method, but he wouldn’t return the favor by admitting that scientific consensus also plays a valid role. The only reason he held to his position is because he had his mind made up before the debate started. He didn’t care what scientists think or what scientific research concludes. He only mentioned scientists when they agreed with him. He was merely using the minority of scientific skeptics to outright deny the majority of scientific supporters, but he didn’t really care what any of these scientists said. It was just convenient that some scientists happened to agree with him on this issue.

What he refused to understand is that skepticism goes both ways (or rather goes many directions). Yes, the 3% are skeptical of the 97% consensus, but the 97% are also skeptical of the 3%. Furthermore, even within the 97% there are those who are skeptical because they think the mainstream doesn’t go far enough in support of AGW. Scientific institutions such as the IPCC are very conservative. These institutions represent the consensus, represent the slow and conservative process of the scientific method, represents decades of  peer-reviewed research. There are scientists with all kinds of opinions outside of the consensus, but it would be utterly stupid to base public policies on the minority of scientists rather than on the consensus. In the past, there wasn’t a consensus about AGW, but then the data changed and so through painstaking discussion a consensus developed. That is quite significant.

Michael Specter makes a very good point at the beginning of that video. He says there are two topics he doesn’t discuss: Creationism and Global Warming. If someone believe humans and dinosaurs co-existed, then there is absolutely no basis for a rational discussion. If someone dismisses the mountain of data on climate change, then one more intelligent presentation of the data will be pointless. I probably should follow his example. I’m sure I’d be happier if I didn’t waste my time with these extreme representatives of denialism.

I’ve written about all of this before. There is a long history to my irritation towards rampant irrationality, anti-intellectualism, ideological rhetoric, apologetics, and general ignorance.

Climategate, Science Funding, Public Ignorance
Online Debates: Ideology, Education & Psychology
Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)
Uncommon Talents: Research & Critical Thinking
Liberal Facts vs Conservative Ideology
Head in the Sand Syndrome
Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry
Denialism: Science and Public Debate
Righteousness: Ignorance and Inauthenticity
What is Intellectuality?
Intelligence & Curiosity
Lies and Truth: why care?
Reality and Rationality: a discussion
Debate b/t Religion and Science: Theists, Atheists, Agnostics, Integralists
Love of Truth: Discussing vs Arguing
Re: All Evidence to the Contrary
NT Scholarship and Discussions: limits, failings
The Love of Truth vs. the Sophistry of Apologetics

Considering I’ve already written so many posts along these lines, what does this post add? I don’t know. I’m just continually frustrated and just need to vent. But there is one thing that was new on my mind.

I was recently reading Charles Fort… now, he is a real skeptic. He is an important example because he was very critical of science, but why I respect him is because he was critical of everything. Fort wasn’t an anti-intellectual. My respect for him, though, goes beyond just his equal opportunity skepticism. Fort didn’t just doubt for his doubt was motivated by wonder. He wasn’t denying for the sake of playing Devil’s Advocate and he certainly wasn’t denying other view points in defense of a Sacred Cow. He was truly curious and he followed the facts. His skepticism was more about interpretations than the facts themselves.

Fort is my kind of thinker. I put him in the same category as John Keel, Jacques Vallee, Robert Anton Wilson, John C. Lilly, Terrence McKenna, William S. Burroughs, and Philip K. Dick. These people thought outside of the box which sometimes means questioning mainstream science but more than anything it means using critical thinking skills and being independent-minded.

I’m not sure what any of them would think about Global Warming. They’re all dead now. Fort died before the really amazing advances of modern science. I too probably would’ve been more skeptical of science if I lived when he did. It’s possible that Fort or any of these others might’ve had doubts about Global Warming. I too have doubts. Any intelligent person has doubts. But I imagine that, even if these thinkers were skeptical of climate change, I still wouldn’t be irritated whether or not I agreed with their assessment. The reason I say this is because all of these people seemed to have been true skeptics rather than denialists.

From my perspective, denialism seems like a defensive attitude motivated by fear and uncertainty. Scientists are saying the world is changing. Science is about true skepticism. So, what are the denialists trying to defend? I see a number of possibilities. Some might be defending the status quo. People like the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to and they don’t want to consider the possibility that their lifestyle isn’t sustainable. Similarly, some are just afraid of the unknown. The paranoia of the conspiracy mindset is motivated by this kind of fear. There is this sense of an invisible or elusive enemy whether scientists, liberal elite, one world order, the anti-Christ, or whatever. Another possibility is that some people might be defending against complexity. In a global world, life is no longer simple. The easy answers of the past no longer seem to work. Society seems to be breaking down. The environment may be more precarious than we previously thought. It’s a scary world.

From a psychological perspective, denialism is understandable… but that is all the more reason we shouldn’t ignore the denialists and dismiss them as merely ignorant. Denialists aren’t necessarily stupid, but many of them do seem to at least lack critical thinking skills. I think our education system has failed… as have many things in our society (politics, corporations, communities, etc). I think we need to try to understand this from a larger perspective that can include all of the diverse pieces. I don’t know what the answer is, but I wish curiosity (especially intellectual curiosity) were promoted more in our society. It depresses me that people seem more motivated by ideology than by a love of knowledge.

That is the issue I’m personally dealing with. I’ve met many intelligent people online, but I’ve come to realize that a deep sense of open-minded curiosity is a rare thing. Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of the failings of others… no doubt I have failings of my own. If even intelligent people can fall into the trap of denialism, then maybe a more compassionate and understanding response is required.

If people are this afraid of the world (of the government, of the elites, of modern life in general), then throwing facts at them isn’t likely to lessen their fears. They sense something is wrong with the world and they’re trying to understand the cause. I agree that there is a lot wrong. How can I blame them for looking for an easy answer? By creating an enemy that can be fought, the world can feel safer. Someone like Glenn Beck may be more of a symptom than a cause of this collective sense of fear. Of course, he wants to blame Obama, the socialists, and the liberal elite. Of course, people want some single thing to be the problem (statism, socialism, fascism, etc) or some combination of problems held together by that singular sense of fear.

Even some environmental alarmists get pulled into this overwhelming sense of fear. It can be found in all sectors of society. I guess that is why I think science is so important. The purpose of the scientific method is to filter out the biases, the assumptions, the emotions. The scientific method isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the best things we’ve got going for us. If we can’t trust science, then we can’t trust anything and we are just fucked. If we can’t trust human reason, if fear is greater than hope, if denialism is greater than the wonder we’re born with, then we might as well just give up right now. We have to be willing to face our fears, both personal and collective… and that is the hardest thing to do. The world is a scary place. There are no easy answers. But what is clear is that knowledge is better than ignorance… even imperfect, partial knowledge is better than ignorance.

Climategate, Science Funding, Public Ignorance

There was a forum at MIT about the scandal involving the stolen e-mails of some climate scientists.  A video of it is available at the MIT World website:

The Great Climategate Debate

It was a helpful discussion about the specific issue of Climategate and the general issues of science, education and media. 

One particular point stood out to me.  One of the participants explained one of the problems with East Anglia where the e-mails were stolen from.  The skeptics argue that the the scientists were being devious because they wouldn’t publicly release the data, but the skeptics conveniently ignore one factor.  The East Anglia scientist sold the rights to the data to an outside organization.  This is apparently a practice that is sometimes used in Europe in order to get funding.  The problem is that a contract was signed where the scientists legally weren’t allowed to share the data with third parties.

What is interesting is that the skeptics claim government funding is causing the data to be skewed, but in this particular case the problem was that the scientists were being funded by way of capitalism and not government grants.  In the US, this practice isn’t done because scientists get public funding and so US scientific data is open to the public.  The skeptics argument falls apart here because they seem to imply that there wouldn’t be problems if scientists got their funding from sources other than the government.

The skeptics don’t explain why capitalist funding would be more trustworthy than government funding.  If you look a capitalist funding, a lot of money has been invested lobbying politicians and creating front groups to sway public opinion.  For example, ExxonMobil has given millions of dollars to dozens of organizations that argue against the climate change science.  This capitalis propaganda is very successful.  Even though there is a scientific consensus among active researchers in climatology, most Americans believe that no consensus exists.  It’s one thing to believe the consensus is fraudulent, but to believe it doesn’t exist shows both a failure of the media and the education system.  The scientific consensus does exist.  That is just a simple fact.

This isn’t surprising.  Polls also show a large percentage of Americans believe in Creationism or otherwise doubt Darwinian evolution.  Darwinism is one of the most credible theories with one of the strongest of scientific consensuses.  If Americans even doubt such solid science as that, then what hope is there?  The American public is largely ignorant on many scientific issues.  Why?  Another poll might give a clue.  A large percentage of highschool biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.  There you go.  Even many teachers are ignorant of science and so the students of those teachers are unlikely to get a high quality science education.

*sigh*

Denialism & Anti-intellectualism (AGW)

In a recent post I mentioned a discussion I was having with a rightwinger in the comments section of an Amazon.com book review.  The person seemed somewhat reasonable and intelligent, but didn’t offer much evidence to support his arguments.  I’m fine with that as long as someone isn’t making extreme claims and that is where I finally took issue with this person.  I explained, in one of my comments, my criticism of the anti-intellectualism that has become popular with some conservatives, and then this person provides a perfect example of this rightwing anti-intellectualism.

I wanted to use this example because it’s too easy to think of anti-intellectual types as backwards and stupid.  That may sometimes be the case, but not always.  The particular person in question, although no intellectual giant, is able to present himself in a reasonable manner in most of his comments.  He can put together a coherent thought and articulate it with some clarity.  He does even offer some meager evidence.  However, his response to my evidence seems perplexing from a rational perspective.

My comment:

There was a study done in 2009 at University of Illinois by Peter Doran and Kendall Zimmerman which appeared in the January 19 publication Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union. From around the world, 3,146 earth scientists were surveyed which included experts in academia and government research centers.

The questions were checked by a polling expert to ensure there was no bias. There were two questions that are directly relevant to our. One question was about whether the mean global temperatures had risen since before the 1800s. And another question was about whether human activity had been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures.

Around 90% of scientists thought that mean global temperatures had risen and 82% thought human activity was a significant factor. Just considering climatologists who are active in research, 97.4% thought human activity was a significant factor. Even petrolium geologists were almost evenly split with only 54% disagreeing with the majority of climatologists.

Doran also noted recent poll data about public opinion. Gallup poll shows 58% of the public agrees with climatologists that human activity contributes to global warming. However, most Americans are misinformed about actual scientific consensus. Only 52% think most scientists agree that temperature is rising and only 47% think most scientists agree that human activity is contributing. However, a World Bank international survey found that most people in most countries thought that scientists agree that climate change is an urgent problem that is understood well enough that action needs to be taken.

From the Wikipedia article “Climate change consensus” (with cited and linked sources):

“The majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is primarily caused by human activities such as fossil fuel burning and deforestation. The conclusion that global warming is mainly caused by human activity and will continue if greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced has been endorsed by more than 75 scientific societies and academies of science, including all of the national academies of science of the major industrialized countries. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, the International Union for Quaternary Research, and the Joint Science Academies of the major industrialized and developing nations explicitly use the word “consensus” when referring to this conclusion.””

And:

“A 2004 essay by Naomi Oreskes in the journal Science reported a survey of 928 abstracts of peer-reviewed papers related to global climate change in the ISI database. Oreskes claimed that “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position. … This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies.” Benny Peiser claimed to have found flaws in Oreskes’ work, but his attempted refutation is disputed and has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal. Peiser later withdrew parts of his criticism, also commenting that “the overwhelming majority of climatologists is agreed that the current warming period is mostly due to human impact. However, this majority consensus is far from unanimous.””

The other person’s response:

Sorry Steele; the science just isn’t there. You think it is because there is a conspiracy of sorts. It’s not a deal where everyone set down and plotted, but the ball got rolling and everyone jumped on for their own gain. And there is a leftist move to redistribute wealth this way. Gore has multiplied his wealth many, many times just since promoting this issue. He has a vested interest and if he was a government official would probably be violating conflict of interest. As Dr. Gray says its all ocean currents. He also says the CO2 is good for the plants as we know from biology class. There are many scientists against this and many more who won’t speak out because of political correctness. Oh well, the left has only a few months left in power. Still haven’t read all your stuff; I’ll get back to you.

I only listed part of the data that shows consensus among climatologists.  A survey of the data is presented in the Wikipedia article “Scientific opinion on climate change“.  A number of respected organizations have referred to scientific opinion on this issue as a consensus: American Association for the Advancement of Science, US National Academy of Sciences,  American Meteorological Society, Network of African Science Academies, International Union for Quaternary Research, and Australian Coral Reef Society.

It takes some major balls for a non-scientist to deny the consensus of thousands of scientists who are experts in the field of climatology.  The climatologists who are the most active researchers are in fact the ones who show the highest agreement, but even the non-active scientists agree (and so presumably they aren’t receiving funding to bias their opinions).  The person I was having the discussion with obviously hadn’t really considered the science in any depth and possibly thinks that scientists are part of the liberal elite trying to take over the world.

It’s fine if you have criticisms (assuming they’re based on critical thinking).  Scientists can be wrong and the scientific method takes into account the errors of individual scientists.  That is why we have peer-review, but the meta-analysis of the peer-review articles also shows support for anthropogenic global warming.  Scientific consensus is based on the known facts.  Some of those facts may turn out to be wrong or misinterpreted, and if that were to happen then scientific consensus would change.  But it’s the worst kind of anti-intellectualism to dismiss both the known facts and the scientific concensus because they disagree with your preconceived ideology.

There are intelligent criticisms.  As an example of a slightly more intelligent discussion between two skeptical non-scientists, watch the following video:

The obvious weakness of that discussion is that neither person is a climatologists or even a scientist.  The person being interviewed is a journalist and does seem to be at least somewhat informed.  It’s fair to criticize specific measurements and how accurate they might be.  It’s fair to criticize how large the actual effect is on climate.  Most climatologists aren’t fear-mongering about the end of the world.  Even though there is a concensus about anthropogenic global warming, many scientists debate and disagree about the exact mechanism of global warming, the exact influence of human activity, and the exact influence on the climate in the near future.  Nonetheless, the consensus remains.

The major failing of the discussion in the above video is that it doesn’t take into account the 97% of experts who do support anthropogenic global warming.  It isn’t clear how much the journalist disagrees with the consensus itself or merely the conclusions extrapolated from that conclusion.  I don’t understand the science well enough to fully understand the data he is referring to.  All I know for sure is that only 3% of experts are skeptical about anthropogenic global warming.  I think it’s fairly weak when skeptics refer to scientists within that 3% in order to “disprove” the conclusions of the 97%.  If this non-expert journalist disagrees with 97% of expert scientists, then I think I’ll go with the consensus of the experts.

A maybe more important failing of global warming skepticism in general is that it supports the dismissal of the global problems we face.  Even if humans don’t cause global warming and even if global warming doesn’t exist at all, we still are destroying entire ecosystems and poisoning ourselves.  If you’re concerned about the issue of diseases, poverty, and human rights, then you should be concerned about pollution and environmental destruction.  You can argue about the policies that should be implemented, but to ignore the problems themselves is insane.

Skepticism is good as all scientists strive to be skeptical.  There, however, has been a failure of our education system and a failure of our media in teaching intelligent skepticism.  I heard an interview on public radio with one of the scientists involved with Climategate.  I thought the scientist was fairly humble and defended the science in a reasonable manner.  The scientist pointed out an important issue.  The media has failed in explaining the actual science of climatology.  The reporters weak response was “So, you’re attacking the messenger.”  The scientists was correct.  The media just likes conflict and often does little to resolve conflict by intelligent reporting.  The problem is most reporters don’t understand science to any great degree.  Reporting done about science by a non-scientist isn’t likely to have much depth of analysis.

There is even support for the allegation that the media and the education system aren’t informing the public.  I thought it quite significant that the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is so extremely high and yet most Americans don’t think there is a scientific consensus.  How does such a disconnect happen between public opinion and scientific knowledge?  Furthermore, even when I’ve presented this data to global warming denialists, they act as if it’s of no significance what most scientific experts think.  I’ve even seen a denialist claim that consensus has nothing to do with science and therefore the 3% of dissenting scientific opinion is somehow equal to or greater than the 97% of scientific consensus.  So, if there is any scientist who disagrees with a consensus, then that consensus automatically becomes false and anyone who promotes it is morally inferior for supposedly trying to silence the minority who disagrees.  The faulty logic of this style of thinking not only is a failure of public education in teaching critical thinking skills but also a failure in teaching the scientific method.

This post was more about the issue of anti-intellectualism than climatology, but if you want to read more about the issue of global warming and Climategate I’ve written about it previously:

Climate Change, Scandalous E-mails, and Wendell Berry

Climatology and Conspiracy Theorists

Head in the Sand Syndrome

And some reasonable videos showing the scientific support of anthropogenic global warming: