I am reading Fred Pearce‘s the Last Generation at the moment, and it’s great.  Like Bill Bryson in his Short History of Nearly Everything, Pearce is a master of tying the scientific data he wishes to convey into a human-centered narrative.  Pearce does not ask the reader to absorb an endless stream of impersonal facts and figures, but to picture Charles David Keeling scrambling to the top of a Hawaiian volcano to measure CO2 background levels in the atmosphere every four hours for almost fifty years – even missing the birth of his first child to avoid a gap in the data set.  This humanistic style of transmitting scientific wisdom is the standard for my favourite popular science writers but was catastrophically absent from my school text books – in fact, I didn’t even realize science was interesting until Bryson explained it to me.  Now it seems I can’t get enough.

I’ve only just started reading the Last Generation, but one sentence in it got the pistons of my mind firing so loudly I had to put it down and write a blog post, even though I’m unable to access the internet in my new abode (thanks, BT, you fools).  This may see the light tomorrow if I can find some form of storage device that can bypass the draconian security features of my work PC, otherwise it will have to wait for our service call to BT to circumnavigate the globe four or five times, probably in a bottle.

So here’s the sentence that got me thinking:

“Most [climate change] sceptics… fall into one of three categories: political scientists, journalists and economists with little knowledge of climate science; aggrieved and retired boffins who find their old teachings disturbed; and salaried scientists with overbearing bosses to serve, like oil companies and governments in hock to them.”

For brevity, I will rename these three categories the Ignorant, the Disgruntled, and the Paid Liars.

Realizing the folksy wisdom of this assessment, I saw in a flash that I have been completely neglecting a tiny but significant category of climate change sceptics in my debates with people who insist the threat of global warming is not real.  I have been lumping all the climate change sceptics who happen to be scientists into the category of Paid Liars and unwittingly denied the existence of the Disgruntled.  I have done this because it is so easy to debunk the Paid Liars and the Ignorant.  (I have Exxon’s financial contributions to “non-profit” organizations bookmarked.)

But how do you rebut the Disgruntled?  To my knowledge, there is no online watchdog group that keeps track of the personal feelings, fears and neuroses that might influence people’s opinions on man-made climate change.

Perhaps I have been detracting from my own credibility as a reasonable person with a logical point of view by consistently arguing that every scientist who happens to be a climate change sceptic is in the pocket of Big Oil.  While most of the time I can prove this, very occasionally I can’t.  Sometimes someone cites the findings of a climate change sceptic who, for all my research, appears to be a genuine, credentialed scientist – sometimes even in a vaguely relevant field of study – and can not be easily shown to be receiving wheelbarrows full of cash from oil companies (yet).  Although these references are extremely rare, I have never known how to handle them, and it has bothered me.

So what gives?  Most of us can SEE climate change happening for ourselves.  If we live by the coast we can watch the sea level creep up, look at satellite photos of disappearing ice sheets and tropical islands, count floods and hurricanes from one year to the next, and deduce with very little effort or research that the proverbial shit is hitting the proverbial fan, big time.  How can anyone who has built a career on the scientific principle of noticing things question whether the climate is rapidly changing?

In Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything I came across a concept I will paraphrase as: new scientific theories gain general acceptance when old scientists die.  I mentioned this to Paul over at Cafe Philos and he recommended that I read the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which elaborates on this concept.  (It’s on my shelf, Paul, but I haven’t cracked it yet.)  Seems reasonable though:  I can easily accept the evidence that the climate is changing because I haven’t invested my entire life in teaching others that this is not the case.  If I had, I might feel very differently.

Anyway, disgruntled old scientists who are not in the pocket of Big Oil but still espouse climate change scepticism for mysterious personal reasons seem to demand a specialised debate tactic – a tactic that appears to me absent from cyber-discussion (as much as I am able to recall it from those bygone days when we had the internet.)  It seems that many of us have some difficulty being able to say “this guy appears to be legitimate, but in light of the near-unanimous scientific concensus on this issue, he also appears to be wrong.”  Instead, we insinuate he must be on the payroll.  It simplifies things.  When we are trying to persuade others to accept the worrying findings of scientists, it obscures the message somewhat to admit that scientists can sometimes be wrong.

So how do we challenge seemingly independent, credentialed, published, reputable scientists who just can not let go of their late 19th century notions that climate change resulting from atmospheric CO2 is probably going to be gradual and pleasant, or that nature can easily absorb an unlimited amount of human waste?

To do so we have to acknowledge that science is not simply an impersonal collection of factual data, as our school textbooks would have us believe.  Science is also a human narrative, and as such scientists are as susceptible as we are to emotion, obstinacy, denial and catastrophic error as the rest of us.

This is awkward territory for people who deeply desire an urgent, collective response to climate change.  If science too is a human narrative and prone to error, what is the difference between science and religion?

0 Responses

  1. ” . . . otherwise it will have to wait for our service call to BT to circumnavigate the globe four or five times, probably in a bottle.”

    Welcome to the UK. Just count yourself lucky NTL doesn’t exist any more. (http://www.thehumorarchives.com/joke/NTL_Complaint)

    Bryson’s book is a godsend. I read it a few years ago. There is also a series on the BBC about the history of the climate change debate, which you may find interesting. It’s on iPlayer now.

    Personally, I was never a sceptic, but I was certainly confused and therefore unwilling to commit. Discussing the matter with a sceptic was very much like discussing genetic evolution with a creationist.

  2. What a brilliant letter that is to NTL! Thanks for the link.

    Re: “There is also a series on the BBC about the history of the climate change debate, which you may find interesting. It’s on iPlayer now.”

    Um… thanks Richard. I’m watching tonnes of iPlayer now that I have no internet. BT has generously agreed to activate our phone on the 17th, and we should be able to get online shortly after that. In the mean time I am lingering around work to communicate, where both BBC iplayer and my personal email are both blocked. Hopefully it will still be up in a few weeks.

  3. Right. Not having an Internet connection would make watching stuff on it quite difficult. That’s exactly the kind of thing I need to realise for myself. 🙂

  4. With respect, isn’t this a bit of a non-issue? Science is a discourse, and subject to the usual ebb and flow and sturm und drang of human passion, but it’s not just any discourse. I think Kuhn pushes this far too far.

    If — I stress if — there are credentialed scientists who can present compelling evidence that casts doubt on the near-consensus about anthropogenic global warming, that evidence will, I believe, win out. It will win out because it will be true in the way that scientific findings are true — confirmed by evidence, vetted by peer review, etc. Scientists may have their pet grievances and preferences, but if they’re scientists, they’ll come around. Call me an idealist …

    Moreover, in this case, we know there are gigantic pots of gold awaiting any scientist who can present such a scientific case. We know this because the pots of gold are currently going to the support of, well, hack science. So this particular scientific finding, if ever found — again, huge if — has a bright financial future that ensures it will be widely propagated over and above the usual scientific finding. This dynamic is not present in, say, the science of abiogenesis. As fascinating as it is, no one is out there dangling gigantic pots of gold for preferred outcomes — Templeton Foundation excepted, maybe, but let’s face it, the Templeton Foundation is not on the level of Exxon-Mobil-Conoco-Phillips-Ford-GM-Daimler etc.

    I say read Kuhn, but read his critics too. There are paradigms, but it doesn’t follow that everything is nothing but a paradigm. In terms of his extended example: in hindsight, I think we can say with pretty good confidence that Copernicus got it right and Ptolemy had it wrong. I think he overstates the importance of “discourse” and understates the importance of evidence.

    But I could be wrong on all of this. And by that I mean actually wrong, not just a member of a different discursive community. 😉

  5. Beautiful post! I am so happy you tossed out something of yours to read because I was having such painful withdrawal symptoms with your moving. 🙂

    You’ve raised at least two fascinating questions. I’m going to give each one some thought before responding.

  6. @ Dale: thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree with you, but I feel a sense of urgency about this particular issue (inevitable, the more I read about it) that makes discourse subject to the “ebb and flow and sturm und drang of human passion” on this subject intolerable to me. What I want to discover is that magic pin that punctures the balloon of this “debate”. Obviously there isn’t one – the only thing we can do is be an example of the change we want to see – I think that is some twee phrase plagiarised off a bumper sticker… or maybe a lyric to a song someone posted on my myspace page – and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

    As far as the pace of paradigm shifts in the scientific community are concerned, with regards to climate change scientists are well ahead of the rest of us in accepting this one. In fact, after I wrote this post I tried to think of an example of one of these Aggrieved Boffins and couldn’t. If anything, I more often come across scientists who have found errors in accepted models or collected unexpected data are afraid to speak up for fear their comments will be leapt upon and misrepresented by the scepticism industry. In retrospect, I could only think of one guy – an Australian proponent of the “greening earth”, I think, who I could not tie directly to corporate money, and he was essentially repeating the findings and theories of Arrhenius (fine work for 1896!)

    So yeah, this whole post is perhaps moot, especially in the light of the recent developments in the trial of Greenpeace activists in the UK for defacing a coal plant, which I am going to post about right this minute…

  7. “So how do we challenge seemingly independent, credentialed, published, reputable scientists…”

    Easy. Just discredit them, either professionally or personally. It’s done all the time. We all know this. We see it done every day.

    Hard. Peer review their science and prove it to be flawed.

  8. Browsing for something else in the Library, I stumbled in to “Inconvenient Truth” — the book. I loved it. If you think you’ve seen the movie so you can skip the book — think again.

    Personally, I’m getting a little tired of the debate about whether or not global warming is happening (there are still a lot of skeptics). I’m convinced that it IS happening and we’re not going to do anything about it. If you see what our future holds, Gore’s book is worth a look.

  9. Hi, dad,

    I think we already have an Inconvenient Truth, but my sweetheart brought it in to work for his “doom lending library” (the final destination of all our ecology, climate change and peak oil books and videos) before I got a chance to read it, and now somebody’s borrowed it. I have to get through Six Degrees and the Last Generation at the moment, but I’ll chase it down eventually.

    I imagine the “debate” is pretty heated in Alberta – what with the oil sands economy back home Canada is among the top three polluters in the world. It’s actually the first thing people in the UK comment on when I say I’m from Canada. “Canada, you say? Aren’t you the world’s worst polluters?” (“No, THIRD worst” I correct).

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