CLEARING UP THE CLIMATE DEBATE: Professors Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley step into the twilight zone of climate change scepticism — where the sun is made of iron and the royals are out to get you. The Conversation cross-post
Science, like much human endeavour, thrives on debate.
Climate deniers want to participate in this debate as equal partners, and feel that they are entitled to be heard and to be taken seriously. This is quite understandable, but by itself does not create an entitlement.
In science, to actually contribute at the forefront of a field one has to earn credibility, not demand it. Being taken seriously is a privilege, not a right.
In science, this privilege is earned by not only following conventional norms of honesty and transparency but by supporting one’s opinions with evidence and reasoned argument in the peer-reviewed literature.
This is what makes science self-correcting. If arguments turn out to be wrong, in time they are caught and corrected by other scientists. It is virtually impossible to publish long-refuted nonsense in good peer-reviewed journals.
Climate deniers, by contrast, seem to avoid the peer-reviewed literature or publish by sometimes abusing the system. Nor do the deniers turn up and present their ideas at any of the many international scientific conferences, open to anyone, where these issues have been explored for decades.
Deniers simply keep restating nonsensical arguments that the scientific community has known to be wrong for a long time.
The illusion of debate
So why do deniers continue to make their loud, and egregiously mistaken, claims? And what explains the tiny handful of deniers with verifiable academic credentials?
Many are (generally former) Professors, albeit usually with tenuous unpaid Adjunct or Emeritus associations with universities.
Are these individuals indicative of a scientific debate, after all? And if not, what motivates them?
Today, denial of the link between HIV and AIDS would be laughable, if the consequences of that denial hadn’t been so serious.
It is thus important to remember that twenty years ago a tiny handful of people in the medical community, including senior academics at reputable universities, rejected the consensus that HIV causes AIDS.
It is illuminating that just as in climate science, the contrarian publications on HIV were accompanied by an unusual context that made headlines and raised eyebrows for the same ethical reasons that arise from climate deniers’ subversion of peer review.
An example from astronomy is also prescient. The consensus of astronomers is that the sun consists largely of hydrogen and helium, and is powered by fusion at its core.
The evidence for this is overwhelming, and supported by multiple independent lines of investigation.
Like climate change, there are contrarian academics who argue against the consensus. O. Manuel, unpaid Emeritus of the Missouri University of Science and Technology, has claimed for decades that the sun is mostly composed of iron.
Manuel has recently published his bizarre theories in the bottom-tier journal Energy & Environment, also a favorite of climate deniers due to its, to put it mildly, unusual review processes.
There is an important lesson here: an overwhelming scientific consensus does not imply the absence of contrarian voices even within the scientific community.
Over time, those contrarian voices simply fade away because no one takes them seriously, despite their shouts of “censorship” and accusations of bias.
This is not to say that a scientific consensus is never overturned.
There are well-known examples such as the Helicobacter pylori discovery in medicine, and continental drift in geology. But in both cases the arguments were won and lost in the peer-reviewed literature, not by contrarians sitting on the side-lines writing opinion pieces about how they were being oppressed.
Manipulating the media
Normally the underbelly of obsessed contrarians that strangely afflicts many areas of science would go unnoticed.
Providing a platform for deniers, thereby enabling political leaders to mistake contrarian cranks for real science, can have horrendous consequences, as we have seen in the case of HIV, where perhaps hundreds of thousands of people have needlessly died.
There is an ethical imperative to hold deniers accountable for their actions.
But the question remains: what motivates deniers?
With very few exceptions, academic climate deniers are male and either retired or close to retirement.
The climate deniers’ champion, MIT’s 71-year old Richard Lindzen, has had a distinguished career, but 30 years after his major contributions, he appears to struggle to respond to devastating peer reviews when he attempts to publish his contrarian views in a major journal.
More commonly, the academic climate denier will have had a mediocre career that escaped public notice and left little imprint on science. Some haven’t been able to keep up with the rapid advances in science coming from its increasing complexity and the impact of computers and new technologies. Once respected, these scientists find themselves “out of the loop” and being ignored, which sometimes makes them quite grumpy.
There is much truth in the eminent physicist Max Planck’s observation, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up,” sometimes paraphrased as, “science advances one funeral at a time.”
A strong motivation for contrarians appears to be the attention that they can gain or re-gain in the public arena.
Any scientist, no matter how out of touch, can become the darling of talk shows by simply disagreeing with the consensus on climate.
89-year-old Vincent Gray was introduced recently by shock jock Alan Jones as “world acknowledged and acclaimed,” and among “some of the most eminent people in the world”.
Gray’s most recent peer-reviewed publication appears to be an article on the chemical properties of coal, from 17 years ago. Nothing at all on climate.
Jones also recently interviewed 72-year-old Tim Ball, describing him as “one of the world’s most eminent climate scientists, and acknowledged as such.” This is in contrast to Ball’s CV, in which he reveals he got his PhD at the age of 44 and retired from academia at the age of 57 with a very thin list of publications, most frequently in The Beaver and the Manitoba Social Science Teachers Journal.
Jones’ listeners and The Australian’s readers are being misled.
David Attenborough is watching you…
Another necessary element of denial is conspiratorial thinking. Any denier sooner or later, whether an academic or not, must resort to a global conspiracy theory to negate the overwhelming evidence arrayed against them.
One self-proclaimed “rocket scientist” who has published junk science in the opinion pages of The Australian has been quoted on a New Zealand website as saying:
“To win the political aspect of the climate debate, we have to lower the western climate establishment’s credibility with the lay person. And this paper [an accompanying picture book of thermometers] shows how you do it. It simply assembles the most easily understood points that show they are not to be entirely trusted, with lots of pictures and a minimum of text and details. It omits lots of relevant facts and is excruciatingly economical with words simply because the lay person has a very short attention span for climate arguments. The strategy of the paper is to undermine the credibility of the establishment climate scientists. That’s all. There is nothing special science-wise.”
Are these the people one should entrust with the welfare of future generations?
Lest one think this is an isolated case, conspiracy theories are an essential ingredient in writings of deniers.
According to a recent (not peer-reviewed) book by Bob Carter, who has an unpaid Adjunct position at James Cook University, it is “simply professional suicide for a scientist to put a questioning head above the parapet” when faced with opposition from “the BBC, commercial television, all major newspapers, the Royal Society, the Chief Scientist, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, David Attenborough, countless haloed-image organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and even Prince Charles himself.”
Just imagine the devastating rebuttal of climate change that Bob Carter could submit for peer-review if he wasn’t being oppressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Prince Charles.
But seriously, why doesn’t Carter, or any of the deniers, simply write a coherent outline of their best arguments against the expert consensus and publish it in the peer-reviewed literature?
Why don’t they turn up to the relevant scientific conferences and give a talk on their theories?
The answer is simple: they don’t have any arguments that have any scientific merit.
Returning to our discussion of conspiracy theorists, O. Manuel, whose imaginative theories on the sun we discussed earlier, avidly posts to blogs and often mentions President Eisenhower’s 1961 warning against a government-funded “scientific-technological elite”.
Manuel claims that this “tax-feeding ‘elite’ has distorted experimental data to give tax-payers misinformation about the sun’s origin.”
The peer-reviewed literature on conspiratorial thinking cites several identifying attributes that are replete in the statements of climate deniers.
For example, the imaginary conspirators are at once small in number but also all powerful.
They claim on the one hand that science is based on the strength of argument, not on the consensus of experts, but on the other hand they desperately manufacture petitions and lists of “scientists” on their side.
There’s a laughable list circulating on the internet of 31,000 “scientists” — including at one point Dr. Pierce and Dr. Hunnicutt of M*A*S*H fame — who allegedly oppose the consensus on climate change. But on the other hand there’s the simultaneous claim that opposition is squashed by the world’s science academies and Prince Charles.
Deniers yelp about being oppressed, while at the same time claiming to number 31,000.
And just to be sure, Prince Phillip runs the world’s drug trade and climate change is a means by which the Royal family is culling the population for a forthcoming genocide. Or something like that, maybe you can figure it out.
Time to close the phony debate on climate science
At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?
The so-called “debate” on climate change has been over for decades in the peer-reviewed literature. It is time to accept the scientific consensus and move on, and to stop giving air-time to the cranks.
It is time for accountability.
— Stephan Lewandowsky and Michael Ashley
This is the ninth part of The Conversation’s series Clearing up the Climate Debate. To read the other instalments, follow the links below:
- Part One: Climate change is real: an open letter from the scientific community.
- Part Two: The greenhouse effect is real: here’s why.
- Part Three: Speaking science to climate policy.
- Part Four: Our effect on the earth is real: how we’re geo-engineering the planet
- Part Five: Who’s your expert? The difference between peer review and rhetoric
- Part Six: Climate change denial and the abuse of peer review
- Part Seven: When scientists take to the streets it’s time to listen up.
- Part Eight: Australia’s contribution matters: why we can’t ignore our climate responsibilities
Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:
Simple: It allows the delusion of innocence.
Denialism is the coping mechanism defending against the ultimate shame and guilt.
For someone to realize the science truth that carbon emissions directly cause warming means they must accept responsibility for directly causing colossal harm. They must defend their ideology and avarice. To bear the ethical burden of shame for possibly causeing an end to all civilization is too much for any individual to shoulder.
It is far easier to deny science and promote fantasy thinking than to accept shame, blame and complicity.
The tragedy is that by doubling down, delaying, increasing the stakes by promoting confusion — it just means the consequences will be that much greater. Which as the consequences grow, it in turn fosters more psychological denial.
My favorite statement is this:
“Why don’t they turn up to the relevant scientific conferences and give a talk on their theories?
The answer is simple: they don’t have any arguments that have any scientific merit.”
So, so true.
Two points:1. Energy and the Environment sounds like a journal title at war with itself; and.2. The “don’t go against the crowd” denier “point” has it backwards — there’s nothing quite like the glory of being right in a debate when you’re in the minority in a scientific debate. Thus, there’s a strong incentive to rock the boat…when you have damn good evidence. That’s one of the mechanisms by which big advances are made (as opposed to incremental progress, which is the usual fare). Unfortunately for both the deniers and for us as stewards of the planet, hell will freeze over before the earth starts cooling again if steps aren’t taken.
Monckton labels climate change adviser ‘fascist’.http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/2011/s3251010.htm
Lord Monckton Bunkum.http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbW-aHvjOgM&feature=relatedJune 22 at 9:33pm
Tony Abbott has moved to distance himself from controversial comments by British politician Lord Christopher Monckton, but says he is still happy to appear at an upcoming mining industry conference which will also host the prominent climate change sceptic. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/06/23/3251483.htm?section=justin
June 22 at 9:49pm
You would think that at some point there will be a day of reckoning for deniers, because they have betrayed us all. Many people are going to suffer or die because of their obstruction. It boggles the mind that people with access to the best information in the world, like our Canadian Prime Minister, would be deniers, but ideology trumps sense for some.
These types of articles don’t actually convince fence sitters and climate deniers. The climate deniers will never learn and the fence sitters don’t want to read long articles. We need to go by the Herman Cain logic of super short talking points that aren’t very substantive but undermine the credibility of the other side and support your position. That’ll convince more average people than long peer reviewed publications.
I think you’re right to a certain degree (I’m a big proponent of good framing and messaging), but I wouldn’t underestimate the impact this whole series of pieces is having.
You have to remember, there are more than just fence sitters and deniers out there. There are a lot of thoughtful, intelligent people out there who have just not quite fully opened their eyes to what is going on with the climate debate.
June 22 at 6:34pm
Who was it that recently published a “conversion of a denier” article? Slate?
June 22 at 7:47pm
4% more water vapor in the atmosphere is a foundational talking point. Yet, many thoughtful, intelligent people don’t have a farmer’s sense of what 4% more water vapor means for snow, rain, soil water table, flood, or more subtly, drought.I yearn for some new generation of Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye, demonstrating how relative humidity and dew point differ between deluge and desert.Brief, mostly visual, messages are key.
June 22 at 7:58pm
Chris, it was Frum Forum originally, publishing an article by Devone Tucker, a former denier who converted after reading the IPCC report. Later, Brain Merchant published an article about him in Slate. Devone’s a climate hero now!
June 22 at 10:15pm
I hope the authors drop in on the New York Times’ Dot Earth, where the phony debate is raging, especially in the comments section. Please go there and spank them, and tell them to go to their rooms.
Your points are well made. This “debate” has been a destructive distraction for far too long.
At a time when the oceans are accumulating heat at the rate of five Hiroshima bombs per second, are conspiracy theorists the people whom a nation should entrust with the future of our children?===