Tuesday 15 December 2009

Denialism and scepticism.

The question being asked here by Ben Goldacre and lots of his commenters is: why do AGW sceptics believe what they do? Well, I'm an AGW sceptic, so I can at least tell them why in my own case.

First, the non-reasons. Am I in the pocket of Big Oil? I wish. I hear they pay well.

Is it because I'm against the massive societal changes "necessary" to fight AGW? Well, no, because I don't think they're necessary. It is well established by lots of evidence (most notably the brilliant experiment done on Europe from 1945 to 1990, where they tried one political system on half the continent and its antithesis on the other) that Socialism screws the environment and that wealthy people in wealthy societies tend to spend their spare cash on the luxury good of natural-environment-preservation, while poor people are too busy trying to survive to be bothered with saving the trees. My position is that, if AGW were a threat, then the solution would be more wealth-generation, probably via Capitalism. Since I'm all for wealth-generation, I'm not sceptical of AGW in order to avoid its political solution.

Is it because I want to burn lots of oil for some reason? Again, no. I hate driving and I think we should cut down on fossil-fuel consumption because it puts all sorts of nasty crap in the atmosphere which is bad for our lungs and bad for trees. I also support the development of alternative fuel sources on the simple grounds of being pro-progress. I want my solar hydrogen fusion jetpack, like they promised us when we were kids.

However, as a computer programmer, I agree with Feynman's philosophical position that you shouldn't use computer models as a source of new information and I also take the practical position that even the world's best software is buggy. I've not seen any evidence that climatologists' software is orders of magnitude less buggy than, say, Excel. Two weeks ago, I saw evidence that it's buggy as hell.

I object to the fact that the models used do not contain known climate-influencing factors — specifically, existing models cannot contain information about new discoveries. For instance, no model used before 2006 could have contained anything about this discovery — and that includes being developed by a climatologist who has seen the science and refuted it. Of course, it is entirely possible to make accurate predictions based on purely numerical models, but I don't believe that this is one of those cases, for reasons that I won't go into here & now because it'd take hours.

I object to the constant use of the word "denialist", designed as it is to imply a parallel with AIDS denialists and Holocaust denialists. We never refer to Einstein as a "quantum mechanics denialist", even though he didn't accept the theory and the theory has been proven right to as great an extent as science ever is. You're not going to persuade me of your case by insulting me, but you are going to make me wonder why you're conducting a propaganda campaign against anyone who expresses any doubts whatsoever about your views.

The leaked emails were a shock to me — not because of the sniping and back-stabbing, but because I had never realised previously that FOI requests were even necessary to get at the data. This is scientific method 101 here: release your data. Goldacre does good business going through the problems with pharmaceutical studies by analysing their raw data. But at least he can get at it to analyse it in the first place. Regardless of the shenanigans to avoid acceding to the FOI requests, the very fact that they were needed in the first place is disturbing. And the insane quote from Phil Jones, "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it" — what the hell? Again, that's the scientific method. As Goldacre has pointed out repeatedly, scientists like it when their results get pulled to pieces, because that's what leads to stronger and stronger science. But not climatologists, apparently.

I object to the way that the science has been inseparably attached to authoritarian politics. Herman Van Rompuy said the other day that "2009 is also the first year of global governance," giving Copenhagen as an example of this. That's an unelected president of an unelected body asserting that he is going to exercise more power over me via policies that I will never be allowed to vote on. And I'm told that the only reason to object to this is because I hate the planet and want all our grandchildren to die. As far as I can see, the climatologists who say that AGW is happening and is a threat are backing the same political solutions and are keenly joining in the political fight. Well, if they want to conflate the science with the politics, they lose the right to complain when people criticise them from one point of view and not the other. They brought that on themselves. And, when they make it clear that they have political as well as scientific motives, I am entitled to question which one would be ascendant if they were to pull in different directions. It's not as if it's unusual for scientists to corrupt their science in the cause of politics.

The concensus thing. My objection to the constant use of the word "concensus" is not that the concensus itself is meaningless; obviously, it's relevant. My objection is the way that the concensus's existence is routinely presented as a scientific argument in its own right. It amounts to "You shouldn't be sceptical because none of us are, and that proves it." Yeah, go science.

I object to the apparent unfalsifiability of the argument. Every perceivedly unusual weather event is presented as evidence of AGW. As someone mentioned in the Bad Science comments, this may be more due to activists than scientists, but where are the climatologists attacking and disowning such claims just as they attack us sceptics? Conspicuously silent.

And yes, I object to the models' failure to predict the recent total lack of warming. AGW's proponents point out the difference between predicting a system's behaviour in micro and in macro, and the point is well taken. But the trouble is that there's no long history of correct predictions here. What the AGW crowd are telling us is not "Ignore our failure to predict the recent climate because we've predicted it successfully so often in the past" but rather "Ignore our failure to predict the recent climate because we will predict it successfully in the future." Hmm.

And I object to what looks suspiciously like Catastrophism, which used to be regarded as inherently unscientific by its very nature.

I am well aware that there are sceptics who are ignorant and motivated by such ridiculous things as a love of cars. But I'm not one of them, and, in my experience, most of us regard those nutters somewhat askance when they turn up.

Now, please, stop slandering me.


By the way, if anyone from Big Oil is reading this, whilst I did write it for free, I would like you to inform your overlords that I am more than happy to write much the same thing repeatedly in return for untraceable cash, barrels of oil, hot compliant women, etc. If I'm going to get accused of working for you anyway, may as well get the up side to go with it.

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