August 12, 2013, by Warren Pearce
Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?
At the Science in Public conference, which we hosted in July, Alice Bell convened a panel on science and the green movement. Following the conference Alice asked me to contribute to a series of posts on the same theme for the Guardian’s Political Science blog, focusing on my research area of climate scepticism. The post caused something of a stir, drawing over 700 comments and plenty of positive and negative comment ‘below the line’ as well as on other blogs (see bottom for links). The article is reposted in full here:
Championing ‘real science’?
Since climate change came to prominence in 1988, the role of scientific knowledge – especially an idea of scientific consensus – has played a starring role in the ensuing academic enquiry/political debate/trench warfare (delete as preferred).
Beyond a depressingly binary characterisation of simply pro or anti-science, I’d argue sceptics cannot simply be written off as anti-science or conspiracy theorists (although I am sure one or two may fall into that category). Rather, they see themselves as upholding the standards of what they’d call “real science”.
Many climate sceptics worry climate science cannot be dubbed scientific as it is not falsifiable (as in Popper’s demarcation criterion). They claim that while elements of climate science may be testable in the lab, the complexity of interactions and feedback loops, as well as the levels of uncertainty in climate models, are too high to be a useful basis for public policy. The relationship of observations to these models are also a worry for climate sceptics. In particular, the role of climate sensitivity.
As well as their use of models, the quality of observations themselves have been open to criticism; some of which have been attempts to clean up issues deriving from the messiness of data collection in the real world (eg the positioning of weather stations), while others have focused on perceived weaknesses in the proxy methods required to calculate historic temperature data such as cross-sections of polar ice sheets and fossilised tree rings.
Such claims are of variable quality, but what unites them is a conviction that data quality in various branches of climate science are below those required by “real science”. This poses the question as to when climate science becomes real science and whether only then it can be used in climate policy making. The next question then is through what process of negotiation that stage could or, indeed, should be reached.
Positioning in the mainstream
Unfortunately for climate sceptics, their desire to be seen as advocates for scientific standards is damaged by the blunt advocate/sceptic typology which dominates climate debates, meaning they can become associated with those who occupy the fringes of scientific argument.
Sceptics such as Andrew Montford and Anthony Watts agree with the mainstream view that the greenhouse effect brings about atmospheric warming as a result of carbon emissions, but dispute levels of climate sensitivity. However, others offer far more fundamental challenges to climate science, such as fringe sceptic group Principia Scientific who reject this orthodox view of atmospheric physics.
Watts found himself under frequent challenge by members of the group on his blog, leading him to post his own experiments on YouTube to disprove their claims. As well as being a nice example of scientific claim and counter-claim on the web, Watts’s actions also helped position himself as a “mainstream” sceptic who can challenge key areas of climate science without entering into pseudoscience, a brush he had previously been tarnished with.
Watts’s public experiments provide an example of one more area in which sceptics seek to uphold standards, through transparent and auditable scientific practice. One of the most contentious issues arising from Climategate was the effort to withhold from publication data subjected to freedom of information requests. When physicist Phil Moriarty challenged these practices as being outside of accepted scientific standards, he was lauded by numerous commenters on the Bishop Hill sceptic blog as a “real scientist”.
While this may mark a new era of extended and unforgiving online peer review, is it also a convenient modus operandi for politically motivated sceptics who can utilise doubt as a weapon against effective implementation of climate policy. Those who favour free market policies over regulation certainly have ample motivation to chip away at climate science if they think it will cast aspersions on the basis for policy. However, how can criticisms of sceptics as politically motivated be squared with science’s commitment to findings always being provisional and open to challenge? At what point can we judge that a scientific question moves from a position of “doubt” to being “settled”?
What does ‘real science’ provide?
Both climate change sceptics and advocates of climate policy see this question as important; sharing a faith that scientific evidence is the basis for public policy. However, such a faith omits the possibility that science is not suited to such a role, and that “solving” climate change does not flow linearly from agreement on the science. The attentions of sceptics may or may not be improving the practice and knowledge of climate science. However, if sceptics’ never-ending audit is really damaging policy, that may be more a reflection of an overly scientised policy process than a basis for denying them a voice in debate.
The conundrum is that both “sides” (if one can use that term) seem to focus on real science as the arbiter of knowledge claims. In doing so, they risk constricting material policy measures, issues of wider public significance than scientific debates about climate change.
The anti-science of the greens is a political strategy
The fallacy of the middle ground
Thoughts on the climate debate
Against anti-science tribalism
It’s climate scientists, not concern trolls who champion the scientific method
Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method? No, they are not. This is because they are not really sceptics at all (although I am sure many do quite genuinely think they are).
The disputation of the nature, scale and urgency of the need to mitigate anthropogenic climate disruption can only be justified be insisting that the scientific consensus view that we should is either unreal, unreasonable, or unreliable. In turn, these three options require “sceptics” to reject the vast bulk of either the evidence, the conclusions, or the motives of climate scientists.
To do this, “sceptics” often claim false equivalence with Galileo, or point out that it was once the consensus view that the Earth is flat. Sadly for these “sceptics”, in both the case of a Heleiocentric solar system and an oblate spherical Earth, the erroneous consensus was eventually overturned as a result of decades of careful scientific observation, theory testing and validation.
The only obfuscatory Establishment that needs to be overturned today is the fossil fuel industry. The tobacco industry was eventually defeated by the weight of scientific evidence that use of its product is harmful to health; as will be the fossil fuel industry eventually. The only question that remains to be answered is this: How bad will our politicians allow things to get before they stop listening to oil company executives and start listening to climate scientists?
…and all posts following in the series.
Climate ‘sceptics’, the real champions of the scientific method?
Not by any stretch of the imagination. Quite the opposite in fact.
Much, or most, climate ‘scepticism’ tends, in fact, to be denialism. I find it surprising and genuinely worrying that a programme about ‘Making Science Public’ can provide a discussion of climate ‘scepticism’ without even a mention of the existence of scientific denialism, or of the nature of denialist ‘arguments’.
Not only is scientific denialism real, it’s defined and described, with any number of illustrations of its nature, in a number of places and across fields as diverse as atmospheric physics and epidemiology.
A starting point and useful working definition / description is Diethelm & McKee (2009) “Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond?”, in the European Journal of Public Health: http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/19/1/2.full
Essential reading for anyone seeking to understand scientific denialism, including climate denial, is a book about HIV-AIDs denial: Denying AIDS, by Seth Kalichmann. Available in hard copy, or in its entirety, free, on Google Books.
I’ve commented on this topic, sometimes in detail and with the links to and citations of work on exactly this subject, including those above, elsewhere on Making Science Public. To avoid excessive repetition, here are links to three of those comments:
BTW, Godwin’s Law is often used to shut down online and other discussion of SCIENTIFIC denialism. Whatever anyone’s personal likes or dislikes about the terms ‘denialism’ and ‘denialist’, using Godwin’s Law in such a fashion both misunderstands that ‘law’, and ignores the fact that scientific denialism is defined in the literature, and that extensive and varied examples are available, in great detail, to anyone who cares to look for them.
Nice one, Jeremy. Whereas my comment can be dismissed as just another opinion by believers in the fallacy of the marketplace of ideas, yours cannot.
… well it looks as though the links system for comments here isn’t really working, or I’ve failed to figure it out.
Anyway, the comments I was trying to point to, in case anyone is interested, are below the April 12th post by Warren, “Families of Climate Scepticism i: Faulty Science?”, and his March 9th post, “Are they really climate deniers? Closing down debate in science and politics”.
Note what happened in the late 1980s…the price of oil dropped greatly and the world returned to a period of low oil prices after more than a decade of ‘oil crisis’. This deeply worried those who had heavily invested into alternative energy supply : nuclear power, renewables, and energy ‘saving’. Low oil prices also threateneing ambitous technology research agendas. These ‘interests’, as well as the new environmental buraucracies at UN and in Brussels, would quickly jump on the environmental bandwagon which procliamed that dangerous anthorpogenic warmign had started or woudl do so soon. They demanded higher costs for ‘fossil’ (i.e.carbon) fuels. This new global threat (emerging from ‘acid rain’and the fear of global cooling – remember it and the dying German forest?) found a ready made institutional framwork – it provided an excellent platform for all those who wanted to ‘save’ the planet’, their investments or expand their regulatory responsibilites and income. Many wanted no more than that ‘green’ fuels and technologies remained ‘competitive’ with the ‘old’ energy sources. But this required persuasion, fi=or the costs would be higher and have remained so.
Without a global environmental scare this battle against’ fossil fuels’ would not have succeeded. A voluntary coalition of interests – not conspiracy- therefore took up the climate threat and gave it international legal form in 1992, and a few years afterwards in various national legislations, e.g. in UK. By then much political influence had passed into the hands of those climate modellers who gladly would and until very recently could predict dangerous anthropogenic warming just around tthe corner if not already upon us. They forgot about natural variability rather too quickly All this, in the opinion of the scientifically ignorant, was justified by ‘consensus’ (!!) science, when the true basis of the predictions, now projections, was clever computer modelling with selected evidence underpinned by green ideology and the belief in the protective duty of the state – precaution – according ot the German example. This climate treaty and its Kyoto protocol are begining to be challenged and the battle over the future of fossil fuels is not pleasant to watch.
I studied the science-policy links with the ESRC grant in the early 1990s, but few fellow academics could or would listen. The rewards of the AGW threat to research communities worldwide and especially in the UK, were too large and all embracing to dare ‘scepticism’. However, critical literature exists, in many books, numerous articles and also in the energy and environment journal I edit. (Dr. Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, former Senior Research Fellow at SPRU, University of Sussex, Reader Emeritus Hull University)
With the greatest of respect, Sonja (ahem, I mean, Dr Boehmer-Christiansen), Acid Rain and the hole in the Ozone Layer were real environmental problems that humanity solved because they decided they wanted to (and industry agreed to help).
Sadly, for humanity, the fossil fuel industry decided that it does not want to help solve the problem of anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD). Instead, it decided, like the tobacco industry before it, to fund Astroturf groups to perpetuate doubt and encourage inaction until there is certainty…
If global warming has stopped, no-one seems to have told the Arctic sea ice, the West Antarctic Ice Shelf, the Antarctic Peninsula, most of the World’s glaciers, the coral reefs that are dying because of average ocean temperature and pH, and/or the Second Law of Thermodynamics (driving our increasingly erratic global weather patterns).
I am amazed therefore that, in spite of all of this, you want to be taken seriously when you say, in effect, that ACD is a hoax. Senator James Inhoffe may be blinded by erroneous misinterpretation of the Bible as a result of the 20th Century invention that is Young Earth Creationism. What, however, is your excuse? I think you may have taken the idea of being non-conformist just a little too far.
It’s quite clear where you’re coming from Sonja:
Pretty shameful for you to recommend denier disinformation dstabases.
Just a political smear people rather than talk blog.
Lots of scientidts in there.
We’ll have to agree to disagree on that.
I think you have inadvertently used a double negative, Barry. Factual information that explains the underlying reasons for the contrarian position adopted by a wide range of pseudo-sceptics cannot be disinformation. The only ‘denier disinformation’ (as you called it) is what those people say (or write) themselves. I presume you consider anyone who refuses to perpetuate a spurious debate about manufactured doubts regarding basic physics that explains 20th Century warming – is… what exactly… just trying to perpetuate their research funding? … to sell wind turbines? …to spoil people’s fun? What is this week’s favoured explanation to avoid embracing the most likely reason for a consensus regarding climate science (i.e. that it is consistent with the vast majority of the evidence)?
Disinformstion has a very specific, very loaded meaning. So yes it is shameful
I’ve got to say that I’m with Martin Lack and Jeremy Kemp on this one. I find it quite concerning that what seems to be a blog that appears to be trying to make science public is suggesting that what some people call climate sceptics are the true defenders of the scientific method. Warren, I know that you and I have exchanged views about this on Twitter but I’ll repeat what I tried to get across to you there. What is posted on Anthony Watt’s blog (for example) is easily shown to, very often, simply be scientifically incorrect. This might be interesting from a sociological perspective or maybe from some other perspective, but suggesting that there is some scientific merit to what is typically posted on climate sceptic blogs (for example) is – in my opinion – extremely concerning. Warren, I would strongly encourage that you talk to some professional climate scientists. If you do so and you still feel that there is merit in promoting the scientific views of so-called climate sceptics, then you and I (and many others I imagine) will just have to disagree. Maybe some feel that there is merit in engaging with such people so as to come to some kind of scientific agreement. My current view is that this is wrong and pointless and that we should be aiming to promote the professional climate scientists over those who think they understand the climate because they can plot a graph in Excel. However, at least a discussion about how to deal with the different groups who engage in the climate science debate would be a discussion worth having. Suggesting, however, that one solution is to give more credence to the scientific views of pseudo-sceptics is, in my opinion, an ill thought out suggestion.
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