Saturday, May 26, 2007

We're not in Kansas anymore

Attention everybody. I have an important announcement to make. And quiet at the back there.

Apparently, it seems that the debate we were having with the creationists about evolution was nothing but a ridiculous side-show. Yes, I know you will all be disappointed but the news comes from none other than Dr Bill Cooke, Vice-President of the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists (Inc) and Editor-in-Chief of its journal, The Open Society. It looks like we have all been wasting our efforts. That includes Dr Cooke, who has devoted quite a lot of space to the debate in his journal. This blog as well has been guilty of negligence, for thinking that the danger came from some caricature "fundy." Sorry.

Hang on, wait a minute; this can't be right. Has not Dr Cooke missed something here? Yes that's it - the bleeding obvious: it's about Science. This is what the evolution "controversy" and the debate about climate change have in common - they are about the use of scientific information and the reliability of scientific conclusions. The creationists claim that scientists have got it all wrong and use the information that Science has provided, selectively, to support their absurd claims. The climate change sceptics use scientific information (sometimes disingenuously, sometimes not) to argue against the prevailing scientific argument that climate change is caused in part by human actions.

The creationists are wrong, ridiculously so. I think the climate change sceptics are wrong as well. However, more than a few of them are real scientists working in climate science, so they have a bit more mana than the rabble of scientists who support creationism, all but a handful of whom do not work in biological fields. Although as an humble Art Historian I have no specialist knowledge, I think there is enough evidence to say that climate change is being exacerbated by us. However, I think there is room for debate, as there always in in scientific enquiry. Science's conclusions are always provisional. While there is a lot of corporate money going to fuel scepticism and some influential lobby groups are not very honest in their lobbying, genuine scientific argument is going on.

There is another important difference: the creationists are arguing about what has happened, while the sceptics are arguing about what will happen. There are debates among real scientists about how evolution happened but not that it has happened, because the evidence is plain and there is no alternative explanation within the bounds of Science. Climate change is a different matter. Predictions being what they are, we cannot be certain they will happen. So there is scope for differences of opinion.

Dr Cooke, however, feels no need to entertain such subtleties. He is convinced of his own righteousness and rather than engage in an argument, he splutters about a book which makes contrary claims on the grounds that it influenced the owner of an airline for a while. That book makes scientific arguments. If they are wrong they can be countered by better scientific arguments, not by bombast.

Quite why he is so incensed by the Skeptical Environmentalist might be explained by the fact that there is a copy in the NZARH library. Perhaps he has also realised that there are climate change sceptics, including real scientists, among the NZARH membership.

One other important aspect of the climate change debate obviously has passed by Dr Cooke. It is the fundies who are pumping out much of the propaganda against the evidence on this matter. Go to any fundy site and you will most likely find jeremiads about environmentalism alongside the specious drivel about evolution and the dire warnings about homosexualists. They are the ones, after all, who think the world is theirs to do with what they will. Perhaps someone in Dr Cooke's position should be a little better informed about what is going on in the world of religious politics.

Perhaps Dr Cooke has also not considered that all those scientists and science teachers and atheists and humanists who are fighting the battle over evolution are not just involved in a petty squabble. They are fighting for the primacy of reason, for learning and debate on scientific matters to be based on knowledge, not on dogma. We could not even begin to have a debate about climate change without agreeing that only scientific argument counts, so why should we allow scientific education to be contaminated with religion?

So this blog will not be joining the happy band of humanists who are going to save the world with their new and improved World View. I will leave the climate change debate to people who know what they are talking about. Instead I will continue to do what I do best, mock the fundies and frustrate their knavish tricks.

Finally, there is one other small matter Dr Cooke should know before he pontificates about Science. That story to which he refers in his conclusion, the one about the frog which sits in the water as slowly it rises to boiling point: it's not true.

4 comments:

Eddie visit occasionally said...

Actually, a lot of the global warming "scepticism" at the grassroots level comes from libertarian types who object to government intervention in markets, which would likely be required if they had to accept the science on climate change. Have you visited Not PC recently? Peter Cresswell has posted rants denouncing creationism (since his idol Ayn Rand was a proud atheist), but now has swallowed the climate change denial pill. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

I believe (but this is just speculation) that at some level he knows his ideological worldview is deeply compromised by the reality of climate change, and so he is grasping at pseudoscience just so he can say he's basing what is really an emotional response on "facts".

You know that they are desperate when they start complaining that climate scientists are perverting the science because they want lucrative government funding. Ridiculous!

As for the actual scientist sceptics -- well, I'm sure you remember the role of a few scientists in perpetuating false spin in the tobacco debate, and ID has proved how good these spin scientists (e.g. Behe) are at looking scientific to a lay audience. It's illuminating to me that many of the sceptic scientists don't publish in the field. Or if they do, their papers are savaged; this is especially true of solar forcing papers, some of which have been shown to contain simple arithmetic errors.

One of the most respected "sceptic" scientists, Richard Lindzen, recently wrote in Newsweek that climate models were useless since meteorologists couldn't predict the weather in ten days time. This confusion of weather with climate is a basic error and unconscionable (not to mention duplicitous) in a scientist who ought to be educating the public. In New Zealand, Augie Auer has said much the same thing.

Then there are the so-called experts from non-related fields, such as McIntyre and McKitrick. They publish often in Energy and Environment, which has a low impact factor and is edited by a PhD in Political Science (or was it English Literature?) who has gone on record saying that she sees her role as ushering in sceptic papers to add to the "political debate". So much for peer review.

I appreciate the value of a true scepticism. But too many of those opposed to climate change have turned their back on this; they truly are deniers.

Paul said...

Eddie-please-visit-more-often,

had Dr Cooke's thundering editorial included some real examples as you do, such as those of Auer and Lindzen, he would have made a case. Instead he resorted to that old logical fallacy, The Argument from Celebrity: Richard Branson says he was fooled by Lomberg's book so it must be wrong.

As a matter of fact, I find libertarian climate sceptics to be distressingly similar to creationists: both have too much at stake when their core beliefs are threatened by Science, so they go to extraordinary lengths to discredit the scientists. I think you have it right about scientists who confuse the issues, scientists who are compromised by their employment and experts from other fields: in short, mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Brendon said...

It's illuminating to me that many of the sceptic scientists don't publish in the field.

I'm not saying your general points are wrong, but I would suggest that it is conceivable that this lack of publishing "in the field" is more due to the lack of mainstream editors willing to include the skeptical viewpoint than due to any wish on the part of the authors. That survey that was carried out a while ago finding that almost all published articles support climate change and was held up as proof of climate change is perhaps a good example of this confound not being taken into account.

Again, I'm not denying climate change or anything like that. Although I'm not *fully* convinced, I think we should be cutting down on emissions etc whether or not it's causing the climate to warm up; and if it takes the climate change idea to make us do so, then so be it.

Aj said...

Climate change is real, as it ALWAYS HAS BEEN.

Brendon's last para sums it up - a lot of things should be done even if it may not be for the right reason.

Congratualtions for at least accepting that the science is not settled.

This site features the most rational and reasoned debate, by and large, in this debate.

http://climatesci.colorado.edu/