Monday, 7 December 2009

Of Scepticism And Denialism

What is it about climate change that makes people think they are experts in it? I guess it doesn't matter too much, chalk one more up for Dunning-Kruger. Perhaps it's the politicising of the issue. It matters to us, so we're going to be McExperts while the few trained in the relevant sciences battle it out in academia. I'd love to be able to rip apart the claims made in "climategate" but I don't know how to address it correctly. Rather what I want to talk about is the tone of scepticism. Does the evidence warrant the conclusion?

The situation
It's important to remember what is being alleged here. That tens of thousands of scientists are colluding together in order to cook up a non-existing threat. They are subverting the general peer review process, falsifying data, and worst of all working together to lie to the public in regard to the consequences of the current lifestyle we live. Or at the very least trying to serve their own careers by getting funding.

To allege a conspiracy is a pretty big deal, especially one involving so many people. It would mean that tens of thousands of people would all have to collaborate to keep the secret. Not telling their friends or family for one, and given the public nature of this controversy would have to be lying to the public, politicians, industry groups and even to friends and family. That's a lot of people needing to keep their story straight.

But maybe there's something a little more obvious, maybe the people perpetrating the "conspiracy" are doing so unwillingly, they might all be ideologues who have reasoned to themselves that something that ain't true is - and it's something that fits with a radical political agenda that supposedly these tens of thousands of scientists all share.

It's not fair to treat it like a religion given that the people involved are the ones who have the relevant expertise to address the claims. That is to say there would be thousands of people equipped with the ability to see that the data doesn't line up. That there would be many who could see that it's fake. So there should be many with the relevant expertise who could uncover this conspiracy at any time.

This is to try and paint what the emails need to demonstrate - that they need to be significant enough to match the extraordinary nature of the narrative. It's not being alleged that the amount attributed to human activity might not be as much as before where the scientific process will correct it, but of mass fraud to hide that there's no human-induced climate change.

The smoking gun?
Now these emails are meant to be sufficient enough to demonstrate the ramifications of what's being argued. In all honesty, do these emails meet, exceed or even tend towards to the notion that there is mass fraud being perpetrated on a grand scale?

One reason I would argue against this is the nature of the scientific enterprise. It really is cut-throat and people make a name for themselves not by going with the tide but against it. They may be ridiculed and scorned by the scientific community, but ultimately if the data fits then fortune and fame beckon. It's by no means perfect, but the system has proved to work time and time again. Not to give complete trust to the process, but to recognise that on a whole the scientific endeavour has a good track record.

So the question to ask would be does the contents of the email make a sufficient case for widespread fraud? This isn't just finding damning sentences with no regard to context, but taking context into account and the significance of what is said, is there reason to suspect the entire enterprise is fraud? If someone for example said that they have doubts over AGW, is this dissenter being silenced? That is to say that such a person hasn't made such a view public through the peer review research.

This is not to try to be facetious, rather to put in perspective the level to which the evidence needs to be in order to justify the logical implications of what is being proposed. I confess, as soon as the word conspiracy is brought up, I tune out. Conspiracies beyond a few people are just so implausible. But I could be mistaken, I haven't read the emails nor do I have an intimate knowledge of the reasons for climate change beyond the basics. I await the results of the investigation. But what gets me is the denialism masquerading as scepticism, the denialists are pretending that their the sceptics and over what?

Cult of denial
I use the word cult as hyperbole, though I feel that there's something truthful in the characterisation. I say this not to offend but to explain the difference between being sceptical and labelling yourself a "sceptic". And we should be sceptical of climate change, we should be sceptical of everything. But to my mind a sceptic is one who follows the evidence where it leads them as opposed to taking an ideological position. Unfortunately my dealings with "sceptics" and seeing "sceptic" pundits in the media is that they aren't sceptical, they have an ideological position which they are adhering to.

Again I can't fault people for being ideological, they are human. What I am calling out is when the ideology is so blatant that it clouds the assessment on the issue. Now I hear you say, there are plenty of ideologues who support climate change. I agree, but it is a red herring. The question is how closely does the conjecture of ideologues match the evidence?

A couple of notes for concern is with the "sceptics" is how easily they'll tap onto anything that means climate change isn't real. I remember seeing the head of GM on The Daily Show / Colbert Report (can't remember which one) talking about a survey of scientists who doubt man-made climate change. I've also heard this brought up by a few "sceptics". But it's a poor survey. Creationists use a similar tactic to deny evolution.

Another similarity I see to the creationist movement is to label those who support Anthropogenic Global Warming as a religious cult. Similar to the creationists use of Darwin. It's something I see come up all the time, labelling anyone who believes in human-induced climate change as basically faith-based. Again, this isn't an issue of peoples beliefs but a scientific position. Is the science flawed? Is it wrong? The beliefs of the supporters shouldn't matter. It seems the logical steps followed equate to the faith of people (not everyone knows everything) with the article in question being a faith. It does not follow and "sceptics" do themselves a disservice by such a blatant error of thinking.

To get back to the emails, do the emails really implicate the entire scientific discipline of science? As put above, this is not quote mining to find the most damning comment, but taking the emails in context and using them to not misrepresent those in action. This to me is where the big question over the whole "controversy" lies. Does the evidence point to AGW being a conspiracy? Does it undermine the data presented by the IPCC and destroy what is the scientific consensus? I'm sceptical of the "sceptics" on this one. This is a dead give-away that many involved are showing their ideology, that they are looking for anything that might put a hole in what they don't want to be true.

It's quite sad that so many who are accusing others of being ideologues are showing themselves to be just what they are accusing others of. And for what? This is what I really can't grasp. The ferocity of those trying to deny human-induced climate change doesn't match with any particular ideology, yet there are indeed denialists.

Someone who is seeking the truth should be looking for good evidence to support their position, and they should be willing to change their minds if the evidence dictates. Seizing on bad evidence as proof is only serving to openly demonstrate pre-existing conclusions. It all might be a conspiracy, this might seriously impact on the IPCC position and the general scientific consensus surrounding climate change. I don't know, I have my doubts because that would mean conspiracy. But it may be the case. But right now, acting with certainty that this destroys all notions of AGW is not being sceptical in the least. It's finding something that fits the narrative of an implausible story, and that's one for the conspiracy theorists.

No comments: