More Monckton hyperbole

Fresh from pontificating on the principles at stake in allowing Lord Christopher Monckton to receive the support of a university in his inane ramblings, I find myself unable to let go of the subject.

My comment on an article by Anson Cameron at The Drum didn’t apparently make it has now past moderation1. (That might seem like poetic justice, perhaps, given that the letter I supported was widely characterised as an attempt to deprive poor Monckton of his right to free speech. Except, of course, that I was trying to point out that the letter was no such thing, and that I myself support Monckton’s right to free speech.)

This post isn’t the comment in question (which was more of a condensed version of my last post).

Cameron is clearly not a fan of Monckton, and does an admirable job of listing the Lord’s many and varied acts of ignorance, dishonesty and outright madness. However, then comes this paragraph:

I implore the academy not to add Viscount Monckton to the long and distinguished list of the gagged and banned. He does not deserve to stand alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela, Darwin or Mick Jagger. If the Academy gags Lord Monckton it will reward  him with a wholly undeserved gravitas, and afford him the glow of the messiah among his flock. Censored by lefties and eggheads sponging off our tax dollar, the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity. The flock will be whispering of NATO, a world government, thought-control, and only fearless mavericks like the Viscount standing in the way of a global communist dystopia.

I’m not sure what Cameron thinks academia can possibly do to place Monckton in such a hallowed (and inexplicable) company. Academia is not the Burmese military junta; it does not have its own private army waiting to whisk away those who dissent. You might think I’m being a little patronising here, but really – stopping someone speaking at a university compares to locking them away for decades as a political prisoner? You don’t get to compare yourself to Aung San Suu Kyi or Nelson Mandela just because you’ve been declared a fruitcake by a group of lecturers and researchers. That sounds rather too much like the Galileo Gambit. Cameron’s further mention of Mick Jagger sounds rather too much like taking the piss. You think academia is going to turn Monckton into a rock star? I’m not sure that’s how it normally works.

The next bit is also a bit of a giveaway: “the things he wasn’t allowed to say will take on an unwarranted profundity.” That’s logically impossible. How can anyone know what things Monckton would have said but didn’t? He would have said them regardless, of course, as Cameron no doubt realises. That means, of course, that Monckton was never in danger of being silenced – a fact that ought to be perfectly obvious, but nonetheless has been shoved aside in order to perpetuate the censorship narrative. Cameron’s concerns are also rather redundant, since Monckton’s words already have taken on grossly unwarranted profundity, through no fault of academia. It’s hard to see how his Lordship’s blatherings could be inflated further still (without sending those involved into a coma of self-righteousness).

Cameron goes on to conclude:

If a person can be banned from University for speaking ignorantly and superstitiously Jesus will have to set up his soapbox across the road from Notre Dame when he returns and shout through the chain-link fence with a bullhorn.

“Ban” is rather misleading here. Except in matters of criminal law, as I understand it, you cannot really be banned from a university (at least, not the kind of university I’m familiar with). Any member of the public is free to stroll across campus and even attend lectures. There just isn’t any chain-link fence to be self-righteous behind. The intent of the letter was simply to not give Monckton the podium at a university. Most people do not and will never have that privilege anyway, so it’s hardly a matter of fundamental rights. Monckton (or Jesus) can set up his own soap box, but he’ll look a lot less dignified gesticulating by the roadside than in a university lecture theatre.

Moreover, in spite of Monckton’s lecture going ahead as planned, I’ve heard barely a whisper of information on what was actually said. The whole event was essentially self-censored (it was invitation-only), irrespective of the letter itself. We ended up with the worst of both worlds: a quarantined lecture, and the symbolism of a university lending its podium to a raving self-promoter and purveyor of nonsense. Free speech indeed.

  1. I’m very slightly suspicious of the fact that only 18 comments did appear, when such controversial topics often seem to attract a hundred or more. Perhaps I’m being overly suspicious, though, and people really do have better things to do. The comment count suddenly jumped from 18 to 195, presumably thanks to some mind-bendingly tedious and thankless work by overwhelmed moderators. []

Poor persecuted Monckton

His Great and Wondrous Beneficence the Lord Christopher Monckton did, after all, give a lecture at Notre Dame University. Attempts (initiated by Natalie Latter) to dissuade Notre Dame from lending Monckton its credibility did not come to fruition, though drawing attention to his Lordship’s rank lunacy is always a small victory in itself.

As the letter puts it:

We all support academic freedom and the freedom to express our ideas and beliefs. However, Notre Dame University has a responsibility to avoid promoting discredited views on an issue of public risk. Notre Dame’s invitation to Lord Monckton makes a mockery of academic standards and the pursuit of evidence-based knowledge.

This has been laughably characterised as an attempt to “gag” Monckton (who has a minor obsession with characterising people as fascists and war criminals, suggesting for instance that climate scientists ought to stand trial for genocide). Does anyone honestly think that Monckton actually could have been gagged?

This call to preserve academic standards morphed (perhaps predictably) into a spurious fight for free speech. Tell me, dear reader: when was the last time you exercised your apparently fundamental democratic right to give a public lecture at a university?1 Do you believe that you have that right; that a university has a duty to invite you to give a lecture if you see fit to give one? Why should Monckton be afforded this privilege, when clearly “ordinary” members of the public are not?

Some, such as Professor Chris Doepel at Notre Dame, argue that all points of view must be heard. This is the refrain we hear from creationists asking that “Intelligent Design” be taught in schools. It’s a convenient rhetorical tool for engineering doubt. The consensus of virtually all the relevant experts, arrived at by considering the entire gamut of objective data collection and analysis conducted over decades, is made to look like only one set of opinions, rivaled by another set of opinions formed simply by making things up. Doepel makes the following self-refuting remark:

The university does not take a view one way or the other on the positions advocated by Christopher Monckton.

But that is a position on Monckton. An individual person might legitimately claim not to know enough to form an opinion2, but it beggars belief that a university – a place wherein truth is uncovered and disseminated – would have formed no position on one of the most outspoken and controversial figures of our time. A refusal to condemn Monckton’s views, for an institution that cannot possibly claim ignorance of what he stands for, is effectively an endorsement of those views. We certainly know where Notre Dame stands on legitimate climate research and climate action, then.

Others (such as the Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt) believe we should just let Monckton speak, and take the time to refute his claims. But this is to accept the false dichotomy that either he be allowed to speak wherever he likes, at any institution, or we tie him up in the basement. Monckton was clearly never in any danger of actually being silenced, not even if Notre Dame had heeded the call to preserve its academic integrity. Universities have credibility in the first place precisely because they discriminate between views supported by evidence and views not so supported (the same as scientific journals, and the scientific process in general). One can delude oneself into thinking that this is somehow undemocratic, but then reality isn’t democratic. At some point, for the sake of advancing the human cause, we must stand up and pass judgement; not on each other, but on our ideas. Science, technology, economics, etc. are not served simply by sitting and listening politely and “fairly” to endless regurgitations of refuted arguments. We have the media and the Internet for that; universities should know better.

Some believe we should just ignore Monckton. However, the man is steering the public debate in ways that are fundamentally detrimental to the prospects for sensible policy making. We cannot just ignore him. Academic institutional credibility aside, he already has all the media coverage anyone could dream of. This isn’t the result of some PR folly by his critics, but rather his oratory skills and the cozy hardline ideological relationship he has with some very loud and obnoxious media personalities.

It is incumbent upon academics to preserve the integrity of their institutions, and to confront misinformation that threatens to derail rational decision making. Free speech is a right, no doubt, but credibility must be earned.

  1. It is entirely possible, I suppose, that you have indeed given a public lecture at a university, but I think you’ll agree that it’s not exactly a right. []
  2. I sometimes admire those willing to admit ignorance rather than pick whichever view “feels” better. []

Who is Dennis Ambler?

Continuing on (a bit) from my last post, I’m going to examine another of Dennis Ambler’s articles for the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI). This one is mostly a long rambling swipe at lots of different and very accomplished individuals, and not (as in the other case) an outright attempt to reinvent the laws of mathematics and statistics.

Here, Ambler focuses on a report written for the American National Academies, called Advancing the Science of Climate Change. He is apparently responding to an article in the Washington Post by Sherwood Boehlert, who quotes a key line from the report’s summary:

A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems.

This is the official, considered position of the American National Academies, and closely resembles a Q&A document released by the Australian Academy of Science:

The Earth’s climate has changed. The global average surface temperature has increased over the last century and many other associated changes have been observed. The available evidence implies that greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the main cause. It is expected that, if greenhouse gas emissions continue at business-as-usual rates, global temperatures will further increase significantly over the coming century and beyond.

Ambler doesn’t (here, at least) address the Australian statement, or any of the other statements issued by other national science academies and other scientific organisations around the world. We’ll set that aside for now.

His point appears to be that the Panel on Advancing the Science of Climate Change (presumably responsible for the first quote) is stacked with advocates* of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). He goes into great detail about the nefarious activities of various board members, such as being IPCC authors, members of NGOs, members of advisory boards, having links to the United Nations and being either corporate- or government-funded. Scandalous, I know.

However, Ambler’s entire argument rests on the notion that the aforementioned organisations have already somehow been discredited. That may be true in his head, because the IPCC says all the things he doesn’t like to hear. However, there is no objective reason to think that the IPCC is not essentially fulfilling its intended function: the careful, objective assessment of the science behind climate change and its implications. His argument also relies on the assumption from the outset that the AGW consensus does not exist. If consensus is real, then it’s hard to imagine what could be wrong with having such a panel “stacked” with those who’ve poured their energies into addressing the problem.

Ambler’s other complaint is one I’ve heard repeated for other advocates of climate action – that they’re not climate scientists:

I doubt a dissenting voice on “the science” is ever heard in their deliberations. As can be seen, climate scientists are very much in the minority. It seems that a mix of economists, social scientists, engineers, NGO’s and corporations in receipt of government funding, form the main strength of these particular committees.

I doubt a dissenting voice on “the science” would ever be heard no matter how many climate scientists you added (Ambler has tried to argue against the existence of the consensus, but not too successfully.) Nevertheless, at first glance, it might seem common sense that climate change panels ought to be populated entirely by climate scientists, until you realise that climate science only identifies the existence of the problem. Climate science says nothing about the humanitarian, economic, or even environmental effects of climate change, and it certainly does not say what we might do, as a society, to prevent or mitigate them. This is not a problem with climate science – it simply reflects the cross-disciplinary nature of climate change.

Climate change denialism does not appear to recognise the distinction between all these facets. It does not accept, for instance, that someone can be qualified to talk about reducing CO2 emissions unless they can also convincingly explain the data used to establish the effects of CO2 in the first place. To an armchair “sceptic”, these two discussions belong in the same discipline. Except they don’t. There is a very good reason why the Stern and Garnaut Reviews, for instance, were written by economists rather than climate scientists. Modeling economic costs just isn’t part of climate science; the issue transcends disciplines.

In setting out to undermine all work on climate change**, climate denialists become Jacks of all trades and masters of none. They perceive the entire concept of climate change as being the domain of a single discipline (climate science), because they don’t realise the depth of analysis that underlies each part of that picture. Analysing the effects of greenhouse gases on temperature could be a life’s work, for instance. Analysing the effects of temperature increases on agricultural practices is another life’s work, as is modelling the economic costs and benefits of reducing CO2 emissions, and so on. The true experts each spend their time on a relatively small part of the problem, but paying enormous attention to detail. They rely on other experts to fill in the gaps where needed, because no single person can be an expert in everything. Meanwhile, denialists skip lazily across the entire scope of the problem and engage only in shallow commentary and nitpicking. It would be difficult to comprehend just how many different disciplines are crossed when you naïvely believe that you (and/or those you follow) possess the entire range of necessary expertise.

Thus, the many genuine scientific, humanitarian, political and economic debates regarding climate change are, in denialist circles, mashed crudely into just one big issue, adjudicated solely by climate scientists (except for all the ones who write those terrible papers about hockey stick graphs; they don’t count).

Just for fun, let’s examine the scientific credentials of some SPPI contributors, starting with Dennis Ambler himself. Ambler puts his name to 14 of the last 100 articles (at the time of writing), and thus appears to be the most prolific recent contributor to the SPPI collection. However, try as I might, I cannot find any biographical information on the man at all. Even SPPI’s own Personnel page neglects to mention him. There are no details of his history, qualifications, accomplishments, collaborations, involvements with other organisations, or even interests. “Dennis Ambler” might as well be a pseudonym for all I can tell.***

Next in line is Christopher Monckton, named as the author of 10 of the last 100 articles. Fortunately he is mentioned in the Personnel page, as being an expert on virtually everything, despite not possessing any qualifications at all on anything remotely resembling science or economics. It’s worth a read.

Then there’s Ross McKitrick, with 4 out of 100 articles. He’s an economist, which I hope doesn’t put him offside with Ambler.

The remaining articles were contributed by a slew of authors with (I presume) only a tangential relationship to SPPI itself. I won’t discuss them, except to note that the current President of the Czech Republic Václav Klaus is among them. Doubtless he too specialises in climate science. It’s all about expertise, you understand.

* It’s hard to maintain the correct wording here, since it can be a little unwieldy. Nobody advocates climate change – that’s precisely what we don’t advocate.

** Climate denialism, in aggregate form, opposes every facet of the science on climate change – virtually every finding of every paper – which would be quite a remarkable occurrence if we held it to be intellectually honest. Individuals may accept certain parts of the science to varying extents, and often claim that “nobody” seriously disputes those parts (e.g. that the Earth is currently warming), but in reality every single detail is disputed in some corner or other. (The only exceptions to this are the occasional papers written by denialist champions like Steve McIntyre.)

*** To be fair, it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that all this information is a pre-requisite for making public comments. However, I’m just a pseudo-anonymous blogger, while Dennis Ambler is backed by an “Institute”, conferring a facade of expert credibility.

Science fail

Apparently one of the world’s foremost experts on global warming – as far as the denialist camp is concerned – is Viscount Monckton of Brenchley. The sum total of his qualifications appear to be his propensity to comment on the subject. A google search turned up the Heartland Institute’s take on Monckton.

Observe the ad on the left of the page: “Why Does Gore Refuse To Debate His Critics? CLIMATE CHANGE IS NOT A CRISIS”. It looks like something straight out of a political campaign, which ought to be enough to toss it aside without further contemplation. But let’s contemplate for a second. The ad shows Al Gore’s face above four people who – we presume – are “his critics” (one of whom is our esteemed Viscount Monckton). How much tomfoolery can you squeeze into something so small?

  1. The one-versus-four theme makes Al Gore look like he’s on his own, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
  2. The ad conjures up images of public debates of the sort that have nothing to do with science. One does not resolve anything, least of all matters of scientific enquiry and public policy, by having proponents of each view point stand up on a stage and hurl sound bites at each other.
  3. If anyone did need to be involved in a debate, it would be the hundreds of scientists who contribute to the IPCC’s reports, not Al Gore, who is after all just the messenger.

Science. We’ve heard of it.