The ABC of climate change denial

The ABC chairman Maurice Newman’s thoughts on the reporting of climate change are, I think, symptomatic of the damage that denialism has inflicted. He was interviewed on Wednesday, and appears more than a little ignorant of the state our of climate knowledge, and even a little naïve regarding scientific processes.

Newman says:

My view on any of these topics is to keep an open mind and I still have an open mind on climate change, I have an open mind on a whole range of issues because I think that to have a closed mind leaves you in a position where if you take a strong stance you are likely to be wrong-footed.

And I’ve just made the point that I’ve been around long enough to know that consensus and conventional wisdom doesn’t always serve you well and that unless you leave some room for an alternative point of view you are likely to go down a wrong track.

This is all fine and good as far as platitudes go, and presenting alternative points of view is all very democratic. One can never be completely certain about scientific outcomes, after all.

However, there is a line, somewhere, beyond which we must accept that an assertion (e.g. that we are changing the climate) is sufficiently well-supported to be considered true, and that alternative view points (however well meaning) are so implausible as to be wrong. The truth is not absolute, but neither is it a matter of opinion, and providing “balance” in such situations is grossly misleading.

Newman’s mistake, perhaps, is in assuming that a consensus among scientists is just like a consensus among any other demographic. This rather misses the point of science. Scientists have fought long and hard  – certainly, a lot harder than anyone else – to understand the truth. Science does not just systematically invent evidence and stories to support pre-determined conclusions, as so often happens with political interest groups. Science exists so that we can have at least some people who don’t do this, so that the whole world isn’t just a fantasy land where the laws of physics can be amended by popular vote. Observers of politics may have difficulty swallowing the idea that anyone cares about the actual, real truth, because in politics it’s such an alien concept. This is really a terribly cynical and blinkered view point.

I think that there are points of view supporting what you’ve just said, there are other points of view which will discount that and they come from also eminent positions; these are not cranks. Many of the people who have a different point of view on the climate science are respectable and credentialed scientists themselves.

So as I said, I’m not a scientist and I’m like anybody else in the public I have to listen to all points of view and then make judgements when we’re asked to vote on particular policies.

Here Newman betrays something of an unwillingness to properly investigate the issue. Most of the people who have a different point of view on climate science are most certainly not eminent scientists. Most of them are bloggers (like me). And yes, there are cranks – Lord Christopher Monckton being a particularly spectacular example. Some scientists do fall into the dissenters’ camp, but most of them are not involved in climate science.

It’s interesting to note that, while denialist opinion is usually contrasted against the views of the IPCC, the IPCC’s reports themselves are based on the broad spectrum of views permeating the scientific community. If you’re after some sort of balance, you would do well to remember that alternate views have already been factored in by the IPCC. The only real debate is over the magnitude of climate change and its effects. Those who argue that it isn’t happening, or that we aren’t responsible, or that we can’t change anything, tend to be very light on relevant scientific credentials.

I am an agnostic and I have always been an agnostic and I will remain and agnostic until I’ve found compelling evidence on one side or the other that will move me. I think that what seems fairly clear to me is that the climate science is still being developed. There are a lot question marks about some of the fundamental data which has been used to build models that requires caution.

There are not a “lot of question marks” over this data. There’s simply a lot of hot air coming out of those who read and believe the things that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts write. Newman has apparently bought into this sort of disinformation.

It’s highly unlikely that he would even recognise “compelling evidence” if it were presented to him. And why would he expect to, after all? What would he, as a layperson, accept as “compelling evidence” that anthropogenic climate change is real? Does Newman need to personally assess the evidence for other scientific theories as well? What would he accept as compelling evidence that quantum theory accurately describes the universe? What would convince him that a newly-discovered hundred-thousand-year-old skeleton represents a previously-unknown species of human? There is expertise involved in making such judgments. Laypeople like Newman, or indeed myself, cannot presume to be equals in this respect.

In other words, the reason Newman hasn’t seen any compelling evidence is that, in all probability, he doesn’t know what he’s looking for.

This is the subtle, deranged beauty of climate science denialism. Everyone is an expert! It doesn’t matter whether the denialists themselves win over any actual supporters. What matters is that they bring the credibility of science down to the level of punditry, in the eyes of their audience. The denialists succeed by creating agnostics who feel they are above the fray, who don’t even bother to distinguish between scientists and bloggers. I wouldn’t hold this against most laypeople, but for those who should know better, this is outright intellectual laziness disguised as a form of neutrality. Surely the chairman of the ABC has a duty to be better informed.