Monday, December 23, 2013

Climate change discussions: no heretics allowed!

I enjoy a good discussion. Ask anybody. And I appreciate people who are passionate about their point of view, can articulate it clearly, and can defend it with strong arguments and actual evidence. When such discussions involve political issues or contentious issues, things can of course get very heated. I don't have a problem with that; in fact, I actually look forward to it. Because nothing is better for separating the wheat from the chaff than a little emotion, a little display of anger.

One such issue that leads to serious heat--no pun intended--is that of climate change, of global warming, or of whatever-the-term-du-jour-is for this phenomenon. I've opined previously on climate change, both with regard to "black swans" and the supposed "anti-intellectualism" of those who question the conclusions of some (most?) experts in the field. From the first:
What needs to be understand in the context of Climate Change and Black Swans is that the realm of unpredictability is not limited to the natural climate, alone. It extends to the consequences of the solutions offered by those predicting future cataclysms. Such solutions--intended to "fix" the problem--can have unpredictable consequences for both the climate and mankind, as a whole. What are these consequences? We don't know. That's the point.

Experts tell that a failure to act, to make massive changes to the nature of global society, will have disastrous consequences because of what their models tell them about the future climate, but they tell us nothing about what the results will be from following such a course of action. Setting aside their consistent failings to get the future right when it comes to such forecasting and their inability to explain these failings, what they never explore is the potential impact of trying to manage--from on high--an open, complex, and largely organic system: the world's economy, the total civilization of mankind.
From the second:
Any disagreement with the self-proclaimed experts can earn one the "climate change denier" label. And there's not much to do about that. So what happens? People that recognize the dangers of assuming man can predict the future of the global climate and can control that future really have no toe-hold in the debate. They may know that "hoax" is an improper characterization, but may also recognize that it's the best they can hope for, with regard to some measure of the population.

The question is, does that feed anti-intellectualism? I guess the best way to answer that is with a comparison. Consider the minimum wage. Anyone that understands economics--even on a basic level, even according to a flawed traditional paradigm--knows that increasing the minimum wage will have one demonstrable effect: it will tend to decrease employment (raise the unemployment rate). There's really no argument to be had there. Even Paul Krugman knows this. Yet, politicians on the left (Democrats) have no problem championing the idea of increasing the minimum wage and dismissing the one tangible consequence as not true, unproven, or not absolute. Why? Because it helps with their overall agenda.
I want to make my own position crystal clear, here: I do not "deny" the idea of climate change, at all. I take it as a given that climate change is occurring (and always has been, and always will). And because mankind is an active part of the world's ecological system, mankind's activities impact the climate, impact its future. I'm all for studying this, of understanding--to the best degree possible--what the consequences are for various activities engaged in by man, with respect to the eco-system in general and the climate in particular. So when it comes to the science of climate change, I'm okay with it being pursued, I think it should be pursued.

That said, I do not accept any absolutes in this regard, I do not accept the idea--now hammered home on an almost daily basis--that the science of climate change is "settled." It's not. It can't be, because the future is not settled and the systems in question here--the global climate and the world's eco-system--are open, complex systems. So when Climate Scientist A predicts the Arctic will be ice-free by 2013, I don't accept this as "settled science." I understand it for what it is: a prediction based on assumptions that may or may not be completely accurate.

Now, that prediction was made in 2008 and those who made it actually hedged their bets by allowing that they were being too conservative, that the ice could all be gone prior to 2013! And by the way, that was not the first prediction of this sort to "go South." Here's a collection of such predictions, going back to 1960. Of course, there are many more recent predictions of the same sort, though most are now projecting an ice-free Arctic in 2020, 2030, 2040, or what have you, substantially farther down the road. Maybe one of these predictions--based on some sort of climate model--will end up being right. Who knows? And that's exactly the point, when it comes to these kinds of predictions: no one actually does know. Yet, the supposedly "settled" science emanates from these very people, the ones predicting the future and consistently getting that future wrong.

But I don't mean to make this piece some sort of exposé on missed predictions. People who engage in prognostication--whether on the climate, on the economy, or on anything else--often get things wrong. Here's a simple rule of thumb in that regard: the more complicated the system whose future is being predicted, the more likely very specific predictions will be wrong. Remember when Obama's economic team predicted that the unemployment rate would never top 8% if the Stimulus Bill was passed? They were wrong.

Hence the danger of making such predictions: doing so opens you up to criticism--justifiable criticism--if you get them wrong. Because the fact that the predictions proved to be less than accurate means there is something wrong with the model being used to make them. I cannot stress this last point enough. Right now, those pushing agendas based on the certainty of catastrophic climate change are doing so based on the outcomes of various models created by various climate scientists. And this is my real issue, my essential problem with the climate change "debate": the supposition that drastic actions are necessary to forestall the outcomes being predicted, actions that will likely have serious--and largely unknown--consequences for people all across the planet.

I ask you gentle reader, where does this all leave me in the climate change debate? Having had a number of discussions of this sort on messageboards and in real life, I'll tell you: apparently, I actually do qualify as a "climate change denier," or--as one person recently put it--a "climate change denier lite." And because of this, because I question conclusions being drawn and predictions being made on models that are based on incomplete or imperfect knowledge, I will not be allowed to participate on some messageboards, like those of the LA Times and of the social website Reddit. Comments from "climate change deniers" are no longer allowed in these places. One of the mighty gatekeepers on Reddit's science forum--Nathan Allen--penned the above piece explaining Reddit's change in policy. It contains this gem of an argument for the decision:
Instead of the reasoned and civil conversations that arise in most threads, when it came to climate change the comment sections became a battleground. Rather than making thoughtful arguments based on peer-reviewed science to refute man-made climate change, contrarians immediately resorted to aggressive behaviors. On one side, deniers accused any of the hard-working scientists whose research supported and furthered our understanding of man-made climate change of being bought by “Big Green.” On the other side, deniers were frequently insulted and accused of being paid to comment on reddit by “Big Oil.”

After some time interacting with the regular denier posters, it became clear that they could not or would not improve their demeanor. These problematic users were not the common “internet trolls” looking to have a little fun upsetting people. Such users are practically the norm on reddit. These people were true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking. They had no idea that the smart-sounding talking points from their preferred climate blog were, even to a casual climate science observer, plainly wrong. They were completely enamored by the emotionally charged and rhetoric-based arguments of pundits on talk radio and Fox News.
And this equally excellent (is the sarcasm coming through?) analysis of the consequences.
Negating the ability of this misguided group to post to the forum quickly resulted in a change in the culture within the comments. Where once there were personal insults and bitter accusations, there is now discussion of the relevant aspects of the research. Instead of (almost comically) paranoid and delusional conspiracy theories, we have knowledgeable users explaining complicated concepts to non-scientists who are simply interested in understanding the research. While we won’t claim /r/science is perfect, users seem happy with the changes made.
Note that it's the skeptics, the contrarians, the deniers that are to blame for the lack of civil discourse. And even as Mr. Allen allows that these deniers were in turn insulted and accused of being shills for Big Oil by the "pro climate change" side, he immediately does exactly the same thing, mocking these witless saps for their comically "paranoid and delusional" ideas.

Maybe I have this wrong, maybe I wouldn't be lumped in with the deniers Mr. Allen is describing. Perhaps I would even be allowed to participate in the climate change discussions on Reddit. But I kind of doubt it. Because here's the thing: as much as the people questioning climate change issues are being broadbrushed as anti-intellectuals, shills for Big Oil, or as deniers--which is wrought with subtext--to the point that they cannot handle an actual debate, it is the other side, the one represented by people like Mr. Allen, who approach all of this through a prism of religious orthodoxy. What they say, what they argue, is presented as absolute dogma, something that cannot be questioned. Ever. By anybody. They couldn't be any more anti-science and anti-intellectual if they tried. They might as well drop all the labels like "denier," "skeptic," and "contrarian," used for their opponents and switch to using the one label that truly captures their opinion of those who question any aspect of climate change dogma: heretics.

And frankly, that would sit pretty well with me, since in many ways, I see myself as a true iconoclast.

Cheers, all.


  1. It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.
    Richard P. Feynman

    P.S. By the way, you are in a good company. Some of the crazier proponents of AGW started labeling some pretty prominent scientists who don't fully agree with them as "deniers" :-)

  2. By the way again. It's shameless self promotion time again. Our research and image were included in Nature's images of the year (image #7 -- small and mighty)

  3. Thanks for the links, Dm. Happy holidays and best wishes for the new year to you and yours!

  4. Thanks. You too.
    On a related note here is a very recent interview with Judith Curry

  5. What is most frustrating about the AGW position is that it has become so anti-science. Science is based on skepticism. You have an idea? Prove it. You make a prediction based on a hypothesis or theory and determine if it supports your theory. There are only two outcomes from this; either you find support of fail to find support. You do not prove your theory because alternative theories will always exist (as Einstein's theory of gravity replaced Newton's), you simply fail to disprove it. Settled science is an oxymoron. Even worse, AGW supporters want to kill the scientific process altogether by silencing those who disagree. Mix in calls to authority, destruction of data, conspiracy to rig the peer review process and you pretty much have the makings of a new inquisition. Heretics, indeed.