Earlier this year I was asked to write a ConScience opinion piece for Australasian Science magazine (one of the two popular science mags in Oz, along with COSMOS). It was entitled “Make a stand for good science”. Here is the first part:
“Don’t feed the troll!” This is a common admonition in the expanding science blogosphere – at least the rational quarters. Trolls, in the Internet vernacular, are people who intentionally post false or controversial messages to gain attention or foment a conflicting style of debate. Most remain shielded within the anonymous confines of their online pseudonym. A rare but vocal few are sufficiently emboldened by self-confidence (or hubris) to speak out in public.
For the long-standing “debate” over the relative merits of evolution versus creationism, they usually style themselves as “creation scientists” or “intelligent designists”. In climate science and policy, those few apparently well-educated people who continue to deny the now vast body of scientific knowledge and analysis on the causes and consequences of global warming are variously called sceptics, denialists, contrarians, delayers or delusionists [Ed: I now simply call them ‘non-greenhouse theorists’ because that, ultimately, must be their position]. Whatever the label you attach to them, they are all cut of the same anti-intellectual cloth.
Their business is the dissemination of disinformation, doubt and unscientific nonsense. One of their most regular ploys is to leverage the widespread lack of public appreciation of how science operates. The scientific process of theoretical postulates, hypothesis testing, critical evaluation (and re-evaluation) of ever accumulating empirical evidence, model validation and peer review is inherently complex and often technical…
For the full article, read on ABC Online here.
It stirred the pot enough to also warrant getting reproduced on Online Opinion and in The Australian newspaper. It was then picked up in various news stories and a few contrarian blogs. It also elicited a barrage of “heated” emails over the next few weeks – more on that phenomenon in another blog post.
But most of the hundreds of commenters who responded to the above postings seemed to have missed the point. Predominantly, they accused me of “trying to shut down the debate”. That was not my intention – my view was simply that the misrepresentations, rife in this arena, needed to be eliminated. I explained this in a follow-up post:
The issue I have with many “sceptics” is not at all that they are sceptical (that is a healthy part of science). It is that they either use their qualifications or position, or cherry-picked information, as the primary or sole justification for refuting evidence. The most notorious choose to take what I have seen colourfully referred to as the “la la la la, we can’t hear you” approach to serious scientific rebuttals. To argue, as a contrarian has recently done, that the atmosphere is simply too large a domain for us to ever understand, is tantamount to anti-intellectualism (though in a quite different vein to the deliberate spreading of disinformation or incomplete explanations), because it flippantly ignores over a century of scientific progress, hard-won accumulation of empirical evidence, and model-based evaluation on this very issue. This includes predictions of warming made decades before it happened (that is, validation), and multiple strands of constantly updated theory and data that point clearly in the direction of global warming and the mechanisms for it. In some senses, the standard contrarian approach strikes me as an attempt to use Platonic inductive logic to trump evidence-based science and scientific hypothesis testing (sensu lato).
In my Opinion Piece printed above, I deliberately didn’t mention consensus or “settled science” because it is certainly not the point. Consensus is simply an emergent property of strong, consistent evidence and lack of credible or verifiable contradictory evidence or theory. It cannot be shattered, but neither is it immobile. It shifts its bulk as the evidence accumulates. I acknowledge that it is slow to change. New ideas, sometimes radical ideas, that are backed up by new evidence are actually the grist of good science, and are readily debated in all fields of scientific endeavour (I would refer you to Fred Pearce’s “With Speed and Violence” book for an excellent overview of many of these, especially with respect to paleo evidence for abrupt climate change due, in all likelihood, to very strong positive feedbacks). Uncertainty about processes, mechanisms and deterministic versus stochastic and chaotic influences are a constant source of debate (that is the debate going on every day in scientific journals and conferences).
As such, I do not consider many ‘sceptical’ scientists who argue over relative values of radiative forcing of solar, clouds, and long lived greenhouses gases, or strengths of feedbacks, as deniers or anti-intellectual. People such as John Christy, Richard Lindzen, Christopher Landsea, Henrik Svensmark, Bjorn Lomborg, etc. unduly (in my view) play down the importance of climate change or the importance of long-lived greenhouse gas forcing and amplifying feedbacks, but at least they publish on climatology or related disciplines and are willing to engage on academic terms, which was exactly my point – this is what they should be doing – subjecting their ideas to rigorous scrutiny and scientific debate. There are many in the field of conservation biology who consider climate change impacts to be a distraction given other pressing threats to biodiversity. Again, I choose to differ strongly in my interpretation of the threats, but that is a matter of scientific interpretation. Not spin.
Put simply, to dismiss over a century of progress with a wave of your hand over your keyboard. “we barely understand ‘climate’. It is too vast a domain”, lacks context. Barely understand relative to what? The world is riddled with complex systems for which we have incomplete understanding, but sufficient grasp of (and evidence for processes) to make informed conjecture about cause and effect – and hence (in this context) predictions of response to climate forcing. I maintain that your stand is but one step away from anti-science, because progress in any field can conveniently be characterised as mostly incomplete and therefore unreliable. Following this logic, you’d best switch off that electronic device you are typing on – after all, we really actually understand so little about the quantum dynamics of the circuit board and the behaviour of those electrons.
Time will tell for global warming in one sense – evidence will continue to accumulate, uncertainties will continue to be examined and debated, CO2 will continue to build. Unexpected things may happen that either amplify or negate the change (models suggest the former is more likely, but models are simply caricatures of our understanding of the real world, and are therefore always limited and simplified). An expectation of absolute proof on the other hand is not science. In only the most trivial issues can there ever be proof. The issue of global risk management of the Earth System will be heightened whilst more and more uncertainties are ironed out, or refuted, or re-formulated.
The concern is that at some point – perhaps soon – positive feedbacks and hysteresis takes the problem forever out of our hands. At that point, there is no chance for re-evaluation of policy or reparations via drastic counter-action. That is what is meant when it is said that we are running out of time. How long are we willing to “risk it” before we take some serious insurance? That is the core argument for current policy, nationally and globally.
More on how this “debate” has continued to evolve in a later post…
Barry W. Brook