Note: I’ve now written an update where I do claim to be a bit of an amateur climate scientist, so there you go.
I’m not a climate scientist. The chances are that you are not a climate scientist.
In fact, let’s start on the basis of nobody here actually being a climate scientist, okay?
(If you happen to be a climate scientist, you may want to find something else to do for a bit, look at some data, go for a walk, whatever, this isn’t about you)
So, let’s start at the beginning. What with us not being climate scientists, let’s not get into a discussion about the data. I’m not qualified, you’re not qualified, there’s very little point.
So, here goes:
How do I go about unpicking the contradictory views on this subject?
1. One solution would be to listen to the different views then settle on a middle ground somewhere. That would be quick, easy, and would perhaps avoid any unpleasant arguments, and if not, I’d always appear to be the reasonable and balanced one. Great!
This is, of course, a fallacy.
Working on the assumption that there is a reality of some kind, one view must be closer to describing that reality than the others, and there’s no logical reason to assume that the most accurate view should lie exactly in the center of some perfectly balanced spectrum.
2. Perhaps I could consider what I intuitively feel is right, what seems to make more sense, and then look for the evidence that most strongly supports that position.
The trouble here is then I’m only really considering the position that I’ve already decided upon, filtering out all opposing points as a priori wrong. Cherry picking data through confirmation bias. Easily done. Not good.
3. Perhaps I could find someone with letters after their name and who tells me of their decades of experience in the field. Would they have the right answer?
Well, maybe, but just because of their position, reputation or former achievements, they may be wrong on this one, they may be mistaken. I cannot accept an argument purely from authority.
4. So what am I left with? I could stare at the raw data myself, not allowing myself to be influenced by anyone else’s interpretation of it, somehow transform myself into a self-taught expert. If I did this for long enough I may be able to convince myself that I am in fact an expert. I’d also probably send myself a little nutty. How could I avoid the confirmation bias I already wrote about? I know my brain is far from perfect, so why should I trust it here? No, that won’t do.
So, that leaves me pretty stuck. Of course there’s a scientific consensus on this topic, but we all know that a consensus could be wrong. Could there be a bias built into the way we educate scientists that supports the status quo? Sure, why not? Could scientists be influenced by career opportunities, funding issues, or fear of damage to their professional reputation? No doubt. So a consensus gets built up, and it becomes increasingly difficult to publicly challenge it.
So what I need is a trained scientist, or ideally a number of scientists, who have established themselves as voices who challenge authority, who are skilled not just at the data analysis needed, but also the communication needed to reach a broad audience. These scientists should also be committed to independence, to overturning assumptions, to systematically applying logic, critical thinking and rationalism to everything that crosses their path.
So here are a few candidates for this post.
In no particular order, Steven Novella, Phil Plait, and Ben Goldacre. Each man is a qualified scientist, each from a separate branch of science, each completely independent from climate science, and, for me, crucially, each with a well documented track record of challenging the orthodoxy not only within their own fields, sometimes at some personal risk, but also across science.
These guys could play a crucial role in overturning current herd mentality/group think, if that is the case, among climate scientists.
Each of them have, of course, already written at length about this topic.
So which side do my newly appointed panel of independent experts land on?
Each of them have used the term “deniers” or something similar to describe those who claim that AGW is a myth.
Worse, the implication is that the very people who are arguing so passionately for a reappraisal of the science are victims of exactly those fallacies that I’ve described above. A misreading of the arguments and evidence through confirmation bias, and a misrepresentation of the data through cherry picking.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of many who call themselves climate change skeptics. I also think they play an important role in counteracting some of the sillier proclamations coming from the environmental lobby.
I do have to conclude, however, AGW is real, and although I’m not sure that it’s a productive label, the term denialist is harsh but fair.
Many readers will skip down to the end, find a conclusion that they don’t like, and reject everything else. That’s okay, but if you do take the time to read it all, you’ll see that the skip-to-the-enders are making my exact point for me.
Many thanks to the good people of Tallbloke’s Talkshop for allowing me to grill them for a bit on this subject without getting all snarky. They got snarky in the end, but I was quite persistant with my questioning, so that’s fair enough I suppose.