Monday, November 09, 2015

The dangerous denialists. Especially in climate change.

Until recently, I checked with three Oregon newspapers on a daily basis: Register Guard, Statesman Journal, and The Oregonian.  Of course, I have authored op-eds at all three, though the most are only in the Register Guard.  These days, I rarely ever bother to find out what The Oregonian has to say, particularly in the opinion section--it almost always seems to have nothing substantive, which is shame given that it is published from Portland where the economic weight of the state is located.

Today was one of those rare days when I scanned through the opinions at the Oregonian.  The title of one piece there got my attention: Is 'climate change' really the world's most pressing problem?  It had a wonderful beginning too:
Famed Nobel laureate in physics Richard Feynman once described science as "the belief in the ignorance of experts." The very first scientific society, The Royal Society, adopted the motto: "Take nobody's word for it." Questioning is the stock-in-trade of scientists; it is the way we discover new things and the way we keep science honest. Without the ability to question conclusions, science degenerates into politics and pseudo-religion.
As a big time Feynman fan, I was hooked.  And as one who always advises students not to simply take anybody's word--including mine--I was certainly curious about the opinion.

Alas, after that it was all crap.  It turned out to be one of those climate-change denying pieces.  And, get this, the author "holds a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago's Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research."  Yep, a PhD from one of the most prestigious places for physics.  The very university that was home to Fermi and Chandrasekhar.

Questioning is, indeed, fundamental to science.  Scientists are skeptics.  However, we need to clearly and forcefully distinguish between skepticism and denialism.
In other words, we need to be able to tell when we believe or disbelieve in something based on high standards of evidence and when we are just engaging in a bit of motivated reasoning and letting our opinions take over. When we withhold belief because the evidence does not live up to the standards of science, we are skeptical. When we refuse to believe something, even in the face of what most others would take to be compelling evidence, we are engaging in denial. In most cases, we do this because at some level it upsets us to think that the theory is true.
At some level, the skepticism and denialism might even look the same to a casual observer:
Surely few would willingly embrace the title of “denialist.” It sounds so much more rigorous and fair-minded to maintain one’s “skepticism.” To hold that the facts are not yet settled. That there is so much more that we do not know. That the science isn’t certain. The problem here, however, is that this is based not only on a grave misunderstanding of science (which in a sense is never settled), but also of what it means to be a skeptic. Doubting the overwhelming consensus of scientists on an empirical question, for which one has only the spottiest ideologically-motivated “evidence,” is not skepticism, it is the height of gullibility. It is to claim that it is much more likely that there is a vast conspiracy among thousands of climate scientists than that they have instead all merely arrived at the same conclusion because that is where they were led by the evidence.
That's what I wrote in my response, too, when a reader/commenter questioned my embrace of climate change:
Notice though being a skeptic does not mean that there [is] nothing definitive. As far as we know, the evidence is overwhelming that climate change is not only for real but that human activities--the burning of carbon--is the prime reason for it. Yes, cows farting methane adds, but sources like that contribute way less than what can be traced back to humans. Dismissing the evidence is not how a skeptic works. 
A skeptic does not dismiss the evidence, nor cherry-picks through it.  A denialist, on the other hand, rejects the evidence as if it was a result of "a vast conspiracy" among scientists.
When we cynically pretend to withhold belief long past the point at which ample evidence should have convinced us that something is true, we have stumbled past skepticism and landed in the realm of willful ignorance. This is not the realm of science, but of ideological crackpots. 
I suppose the deniers will be out in full force all the way to, and through, the upcoming climate talks.  I hate to think that my intellectual energy will be consumed by deniers :(


  1. Yes, its an important distinction between sceptism (all hail the Queen's English) and denial (please don't insult Her Majesty any more with words like denialist and denialism !!)

    In climate change however, the denial may be due to a variety of causes and therefore deserves some consideration. I don't think there is much denial of the fact that human action does lead to warming. I think where the denial is coming is that it may not be significant (since that's a subjective opinion), that it may be smaller compared to natural forces (the volcano examples a couple of posts ago)or that the link between warming on the scale humans are inducing and catastrophic climate change that will cause long term harm to the planet is not all that clear cut.

    I think climate change advocates are way to shrill to convince the sceptic which easily turns to denial. If they could engage more softly, more patiently, and more "uncondescendingly" (Her Majesty's upper lip just went up a notch !)they may be able to turn more of those of who deny to sceptics and more of sceptics to accept.

  2. The key issue regarding claims of catastrophic global warming is that these are based, not on data, but on predictions from models. But these models don't seem to have a track record of successfully predicting the future. They are great at describing the past...but that is not good enough.

    See this blog piece:

    To draw an analogy, it is similar to an economic model that can explain past recessions, but is unable to predict when the next one will occur.

  3. Re. IP-MD:
    First, comparing with economic models is a waste. As much as economists can pretend, it is no science. There is no way economic forecasts can ever be correct, when you also overlay the tremendous number of variables that cannot be factored in and the changes that cannot be predicted. So there!

    Most honest scientists will admit that climate change models will not be 100% accurate in their forecasts for the future years. What they will also tell you that the models have become increasingly accurate over the years, similar to how hurricane forecasting models have become so darn accurate over the years. Pointing out that a climate change model cannot accurately predict the future is a no-brainer!

    What you are engaging in by highlighting these is nothing but denialism. This is exactly what that NY Times essay, which I referred to, is all about. You are way past being a skeptic, and are actively engaged in denial. With skeptics, there is enormous ground for discussions. With deniers, well, there is no really no way to engage in discussions and debates.

    Finally, here is the latest on one aspect of climate change:

    Re. Ramesh:
    Good to know that the Queen has such an ardent defender ;)
    If you measure the shrill factor, the deniers are infinitely louder than the measured tone that the scientists adopt. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks"

  4. You are getting close to name-calling. C' are better than that. FYI, I am not a Republican either :-)

    My scepticism about global warming is due to the lack of evidence regarding its magnitude, its origin, and its predicted direction in the future. In probabilistic terms, I would put the probability of drastic global warming occurring in the next 50 years to be < 1% (but not zero).

    Scientists have a long history of making alarmist predictions that turn out to be completely wrong. "Peak Oil" is one example. Paul Ehrlich and his "Population Bomb" was another. Being sceptical about these claims does not make one a "denialist".

  5. Nope, that was not any name calling at all. The arguments that you offered are exactly along the lines of the NY Times philosophy piece on denialism is all I wrote, and debates with deniers are next to impossible when all the evidence is set aside.

    The population bomb that Ehrlich wrote about or the "peak oil" idea do not apply here, for the primary reason that they factored into their thinking that humans will continue to use the same resources. We humans are way smarter than that--we not only increased the resource base (with food) we also diversified our resources (with NG, for instance.) I have always been in the Julian Simon camp that those kinds of arguments summarily dismiss the "ultimate resource"--humans and our intelligence.

    With climate change too the answer lies with us and our intelligence. But, for various reasons (including denialism and fairness) we refuse to work on the problem. And because this is a collective issue, we have a tremendous free-rider problem as well. For decades, economists have been suggesting pricing carbon as a way to get around many of the hassles, but it is politics (including denialism and fairness) that has prevented action along those lines as well.

    I do not know what you mean as your estimate of probability of warming. The entire work of the IPCC comes down to that very issue of the odds of containing the temperature increase to under 2 degree celsius. " the plans revealed so far will not curb emissions enough to meet a target agreed in 2010 to limit global warming to within 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit) of pre-industrial levels." I.e., the science has already worked out the probability and there is overwhelming consensus on those numbers!

    Finally, this is what I meant as my energy will be sucked by denialism ... instead of blogging about Deepavali in India, here I am wasting my energy ;)


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