The Courage to Publish

I’ve recently been aware of some controversy regarding a psychology study involving research into the links between conspiracy theory and climate denial. To my delight, I’ve just finished reading the paper in question, freely available online, and it’s not only informative, it’s amusing as well.

Recursive Fury is the follow-up to a paper published by Lewandowsky, Oberauer and Gignac in which they noted a correlation between belief in conspiracy theories, belief in laissez-faire economics and climate change denial. This follow-up study reports on the responses to that study on the internet and was originally accepted for publication by Frontiers, a psychology journal. Legal threats induced Frontier to change their minds about publication but the University of Western Australia, where Lewandowsky is based, had the courage to publish the study on their own website (which is where I’ve linked to).

I can heartily recommend the paper as a read – rarely have I read an academic paper written seriously, soberly and at the same time with a light sense of humour.

And yet there’s a serious question here. Why should it take courage to publish an academic paper which has been peer-reviewed and the research passed by an ethics committee? Surely that’s just routine academic publishing?

The debate on climate science/climate change denial seems to be moving towards a more legal-bludgeon-threat stage of response rather than the “no consensus” and “science is wrong” arguments seen so far. This attempt by a group to gag publication of papers and articles they don’t like by threatening legal action is not that unexpected, I think – it certainly follows long-established strategies in modern history, where “if you can’t beat them threaten them” does appear to be a widely-used debating technique (consider the tobacco industry’s attempts to block research linking smoking with cancer).

Recently I’ve also heard about a nasty outbreak of abuse and hate mail, directed at a philosophy professor who published an article discussing putting professional climate change denialists (not the man-on-the-street –  the vested interests and their employees deliberately obscuring the issue) on trial, using the precedent of Italian earth scientists jailed for failing to accurately communicate the risks of an earthquake to the public. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs of either the Italian verdict or the article – read them yourself and make your own mind up! It’s a complex area – but I do see a problem here with the erosion of free speech.

For example, Lawrence Torcello has apparently been the victim of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of hate email and abuse following the publication of his article, regardless of the fact that a philosopher philosophising is merely doing his job.

I want to feel entirely free to express my feelings about climate change science and climate change deniers, whether confused, mislead, paranoid, convinced or cynically working for pay, but if I’m going to claim this privilege for myself, then logically, morally and ethically, how can I deny the same privilege to anyone else? Nobody should be the victim of hatred and abuse for expressing their opinion and if a philosopher can’t speculate, what’s the world coming to? Surely we’ve moved on since Socrates was forced to commit suicide by poison for expressing his opinions?

Let’s keep the debate based on science and not resort to legal threats and abusive behaviour, even if we don’t keep it entirely polite. Any contentious subject raises passions and passion requires passionate words for its expression – but not hate mail or gagging attempts.

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IPCC Working Group 2 report published

And what a fascinating report it is, too!

Not so much for the content, perhaps, as for the furore kicked up about it. I’ve just read the Summary for Policymakers and I’m working my way through the full report (2 volumes, 30 chapters, plus various ancillary bits and pieces….. it’ll keep me occupied for most of the next week, I think!).

I was expecting some kind of drama, following on from last week’s resignation by one of the lead authors (Dr Richard Tol) on the grounds that the report was “too alarmist”. Strangely, a lot of the contrarian blogs and websites appear to imput the royal plural to Dr Tol, citing “scientists” rather than “a scientist” disagreeing with the report.

Earlier today a conspiracy theorist of my acquaintance cited the report as proof that the IPCC wants to forcibly reduce world population. (How, with only 12 employees, is the IPCC supposed to achieve this bizarre aim?? CT is silent on this.)

I’m bewildered. I’ve just read the summary and it’s just a risk assessment. I’ve ploughed through 12 of 30 chapters of the full report and all I can see is discussion of previously published research, risk assessment and concern for the various vulnerable sectors of the population in vulnerable areas. The only statement I’ve seen so far that puts any kind of value judgement anywhere is a one-line comment that education can be considered a public good.

Are we reading the same report??

I don’t see anything “alarmist” in the report so far – alarming, certainly, but also positive, offering hope for strategies to adapt to the changing climate and reduce those risks.

I’m very grateful to those 12 employees and over 400 authors and contributors for their efforts in compiling the most thorough risk assessment for climate change to date. I’m looking forward to when the report for Working Group III comes out, because that’s the one on mitigation.

 

Sceptics, Denial and Disinformation.

I’ve spent the evening mostly reading biographies – over on DeSmogblog. Now, admittedly any blog devoted to exposing climate denial has an agenda, that’s stated up front, but reading the biographies of some of the more prominent professional anthropogenic climate change deniers indicates a very sorry list of intellectual dishonesty, deliberate misinformation and outright lies. Misrepresented qualifications, verbal abuse of anyone with an opinion that doesn’t agree with their own, deliberately falsified papers, smear campaigns….

It’s not pretty. I’m not finding evidence that the most prominent anthropogenic climate change supporters engage in this sort of behaviour but I’ll keep looking. People are people, after all, so there must be some climate change supporters who aren’t saints.

I wanted to stress the “anthropogenic” element of this climate change denial because many people who don’t think that humanity has any part, or a great part, in climate change, still accept that the climate is changing. There are those who say they’re convinced of climate change but waiting to see if the evidence shows it’s human-caused or not.

I’d class these people as true sceptics (or skeptics if you prefer that spelling convention) because they still have an open mind, they’re not fixated on one idea to the exclusion of any consideration of new evidence that may or may not confirm their previous position. Scepticism is a useful, even vital, mindset for anyone interested in intellectual honesty and finding facts, rather than opinions. Any true scientist is also a sceptic, willing to change their opinion if the evidence warrants.

On the other hand, there are a number of people who are utterly fixated on their chosen idea and won’t accept any evidence other than that which supports their position, even if they have to fabricate that evidence. I’m not saying there aren’t AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) supporters who are this fixated (I’ve seen plenty of evidence of them in blog comments!)  but the professional climate change denialists, as they’re commonly known, seem to be utterly fixated on their position and somewhat unethical in their defence of it.

Interestingly I also ran across a study tonight that suggested a statistical link between denying AGW, embracing laissez-faire market economics and believing in conspiracy theories. I’m not qualified to discuss the accuracy or otherwise of the study (it was recently discussed on the Scientific American blog) but from a forum I frequent (which is a prepping forum) I can certainly see a strong correlation between the people who believe that the US government hijacked Malaysian Air MH370 and killed all the passengers, that 9/11 was an inside job by the CIA and that the USA faked the Apollo moon landings, and the people who react violently to any mention of AGW. In fact, the most usual response to any mention of AGW is that the CT crowd will label it a conspiracy theory designed to extort taxes, infringe on their personal rights and liberties, provide lifelong employment for climate scientists and probably further the aims of the New World Order and Agenda 21.

It’s an interesting correlation. No doubt in years to come, psychologists and sociologists will find fertile grounds for research here. Probably a statistician would point out that correlation is not causation (which is perfectly true) but I’m not a statistician and I’m only using my own impressions here.

I’ve also spent most of the last few days watching the same old climate change myths being pumped out when the CT people are challenged on their beliefs. Provide an alternative explanation, was the simple challenge. Prove that humans aren’t reponsible. I’ve been checking the myths against skepticalscience‘s list and so far they’ve all been on the list of mistaken beliefs that have long been refuted.

Amusingly, the list even started with no.1: climate change has happened before. Of course it has, the climate has been changing ever since there was a climate to change! That doesn’t have any relevance to the question of whether or not the current very rapid climate change is manmade, since very few people really believe that the climate has never changed at all, ever.

This was followed by a leap to no.4: there’s no consensus. Curiously, they keep trotting this one out. Research indicates that it’s now harder to find a climate scientist who doesn’t agree with AGW than to be hit by a lightning strike, followed by an asteroid (superb phrasing, coined by Kyle Hill at Scientific American).

After this, an attempt was made with no.16, the “hockey stick” was wrong. Well, it wasn’t. More than 30 separate independant studies, using a variety of methods and data, confirmed that no, Michael Mann was right all along. Current temperatures really are unparalled at any time in the past thousand years.

Having jumped down the list, the next contender was no.6, the models are unreliable. I’m not a mathematician nor a statistician, nor yet a computer whiz, so I’ll leave it to Skeptical Science to refute that one in detail. Suffice it to say, the models don’t appear unreliable at all to me.

Finally, a late double entry; an attempt (off the top of his head – very impressive…. if wrong) to show by calculation that in fact it’s an increase in cosmic radiation and an increase in solar radiation, together, which are causing climate change. That’s number 2 (it’s the sun) – and no.21 (cosmic radiation). Unfortunately for this contender (or is that “these contenders”?) both are incorrect. The sun has been showing a slight tendency to decreased output over the past 3 decades while temperature has been increasing. Cosmic radiation has a net cooling effect by seeding cloud formation, so in fact if (as was claimed) there was an increase in cosmic radiation (which has not been shown to exist) then the world should be getting cooler, not warmer.

Just for added fun, the author of this brave attempt added that he’d submit an article on the subject to a peer-reviewed journal but “of course” it wouldn’t be published because nobody will publish anything that doesn’t agree with AGW and the IPCC. This idea is apparently firmly fixed in the CT sphere, along with the equally strange ideas that you can’t get funding for anything that might disprove AGW (despite the existence of numerous organisations and think-tanks funded for that purpose – one of which even offered $10,000 per paper for contrarian views at one point! What a wonderful opportunity to get-rich-quick I missed there) and that scientists who disprove the accepted paradigm are somehow barred for life and can’t get jobs in the future.

Can you imagine the kudos, the fame, the endless opportunities to bask in glory and a lifelong ticket for untrammelled research that you’d get if you could overturn the AGW hypothesis? Now that would be something to relish, in science! To be another Galileo, another Darwin or Wallace, the next Einstein….

How come none of the contrarian papers ever manage to achieve this? How come they always seem to get picked apart by some climate scientist or other pointing out basic errors and flawed data? Could it be that (gasp) they’re… wrong?

I mean, I’d love to see AGW disproved. I’d be thrilled not to have to worry about the consequences of AGW. To think that my grandchildren will have the chance to live their lives in an ecologically rich, climate-stable world where they can enjoy the same high standard of living that I do.

Does anyone, really, want to think that their grandchildren might be contending with spreading diseases, shortage of food, trouble finding enough clean water, in the middle of a mass extinction (to be fair, the mass extinction is happening anyway – but AGW doesn’t help!) while cities drown, deserts spread, weather becomes more violent and extreme, heatwaves and droughts kill thousands and floods even more? And that’s just in the UK!

You might as well bang your head on a brick wall. All of this is so much water off a duck’s back. It’s all a Conspiracy Theory.

 

 

Denialists

I’ve just watched a fascinating discussion on a forum. It ran along the lines of:

Person A makes a comment about climate change being a problem.

Person B says he’s a geologist and he can assure the world climate change doesn’t exist.

Person C says it’s a conspiracy designed for the rich to exploit the poor and get richer.

Person D says he’s a mathematician and can make figures do anything you want so you can’t trust the IPCC figures.

I don’t get these people at all.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist – largely because I don’t think the average politician can keep the lid on a teapot, let alone a worldwide conspiracy that’s been running for the past 35 years. A conspiracy that involves thousands of climate scientists in virtually every nation on earth, all peer-reviewing each others’ work, and every government on earth, just goes beyond the realms of possibility in my book. Do people really think island nations like Tuvalu are sinking under the waves just to be awkward? Seriously?

(Did I just say 35 years? Climate change has been predicted and known about for 35 years? Yes, I really did. The JASON report on the LongTerm Impact of Carbon Dioxide on the Climate was presented to the President of the USA in 1979. You can read it here and, in fact, the basic science of carbon dioxide and its effects in the atmosphere have been well-established for a lot longer. Read up on Svante Arrhenius, or John Tyndall, if you don’t believe me. Add them into the timescale and we’re now talking about a conspiracy of thousands that’s been under our oblivious noses for a century and a half. Are we really that stupid?)

Then you have the geologist. If I want an expert opinion, I go to an expert. But I don’t go to an expert cook when I need an expert mechanic, I don’t ask the plumber to check my ingrown toenail, I don’t ask a hair-stylist what’s wrong with my dog. If I was worried about earthquakes, volcanoes, landslips or where to sink a borehole, a geologist might well be the expert I want – but when I want an expert opinion on the climate, I want to hear from a climate scientist.

As for the mathematician who reckons you can make any data set say anything…. I have to shake my head in dismay. Last I looked, two plus two had always made four. If he can make two plus two equal seven, I want to stop the planet and get off. I live in a world where when I look at the thermometer, I expect it to tell me what the temperature is and, if it says it’s hotter today than yesterday, I believe that to be a reflection of what actually happened. I don’t think I live in a world where the basic laws of nature, the laws of physics, can be adjusted to suit people’s preconceptions. As Richard Feynman once said, no matter how beautiful your theory may be, if it doesn’t agree with reality, your theory is wrong. (I may be misquoting slightly but that was the gist of it).

Yet in a way, this demonstrates the scale of the problem. These are people who will not be convinced, are not open to change and who will insist on refusing to accept that there is a problem until it’s far too late to do anything about the problem. They’re not stupid – far from it, some of these denialists have doctorates and masters degrees and other alphabet soup after their names (come to that, so do I – but not in climate science). Under normal circumstances you’d have to say they’re pretty smart people.

Under normal circumstances, they’d probably all agree that for any kind of potential threat to normal life, you should carry out a risk assessment. It’s easy to do – you draw up a little table with how likely the thing is on one side, and how bad the effects could be on another. Assign numbers to the categories – 1 for low, 3 for high, say. Then put your event into the grid where you think it fits – unlikely but bad,likely but not bad, whatever. Multiply together the two numbers that you’ve got on the sides of the table. That number is your risk factor – the higher it is, the worse the risk.

If it’s wildly unlikely and the effects would be minimal, it’s low risk. 1 x 1 = 1. It’s wildly unlikely that a rain of small fish will land on you tomorrow, and the effect of having small fish land on you is not that bad. Free fish supper, perhaps. So you don’t bother doing anything about it, like carrying a reinforced umbrella to fend them off.

If the likelihood is high but the effects are still minimal, it’s riskier. 3 x 1 = 3. The sun will probably rise tomorrow, you may get UV exposure. Sensible people take steps to mitigate the risk – slip, slap, slop, as the Australian advertising campaign slogan goes.

If the likelihood is high and the effects are severe, then the risk is extremely high. 3 x 3 =9. If you throw yourself into heavy traffic without looking, then you are very likely to get seriously hurt if not killed (which brings us to mitigation, of course. Don’t do it!).

Now, here’s the kicker. If the likelihood is low and the effects are severe, the risk is still high. 1 x 3 = 3. Even if you don‘t believe climate change is likely, the effects are so severe that you really should still consider taking action to prevent and/or mitigate it.

As for the position we’re in now, if you’re going to believe the experts (which I do, because everything they’ve predicted would happen already has happened!) then it’s an absolute certainty that climate change is happening and the effects will be severe. The risk factor is off the chart.

So how come all these clever people are refusing to even consider it?

Quite a while ago, psychologists came up with the idea of the 5 stages of grief, and once you’ve thought about these 5 stages, you start to realise that they’re not just about losing a loved one. They can also be seen in human reactions to unwelcome news, to a problem that they don’t want to face. Peak Oil, Peak Water…. climate change.

First of all, denial. There’s no problem. It’s not happening. I’m not going to look and it’ll all go away.

Secondly, anger. It’s all your fault, it’s because of this, it’s because of that.

Third stage, bargaining. If only I’d done this, or done it sooner, or…. If I do this, then please (deity of choice) fix that!

Fourth, depression. What’s the use of doing anything, it won’t work, it’s over.

Fifth, acceptance. Okay, so bad things happen. Life continues. I’m sad, but I carry on.

I can afford to stand back a bit from the denialists. I went through that thirty years ago. I still have moments of anger, mostly at other people who’re still sticking their heads in the sand, but it’s a pretty futile exercise because I can’t change their minds. They don’t want to listen, so they won’t hear, so there’s no point trying.  Deep breath, count to ten, change the subject… Bargaining won’t work – we got ourselves into this mess, it’s up to us to get out again. Or not, as the case may be. Depression? Frequently. This beautiful, wonderful, unique and glorious planet that we share with so many other species, plants, animals, bacteria, viruses…. is the world we’re turning into an inhospitable trainwreck. So, acceptance. We go on, because there is no other choice than suicide, and if all the people who see the problem suicide, then we’re effectively condemning everything else to death in the hands of the denialists. Besides, there’s a chance we can still pull this off and save some kind of future for the planet, our fellow life-forms and our grandchildren.

Moral of the story – do what you can, keep your conscience clean and the denialists, hopefully, will one day (before it’s too late) wake up and see the rising tide gauges, the rising temperatures, the increased wildfires, the droughts and floods and the way pests and diseases are spreading into new environments….

Fingers crossed.