Tom Fuller had a post on how science minded folk (“warmists” he calls them) should talk with “sceptics”. Well meant, but coming from the perspective of the “skeptics” having a lot of useful things to say about the science, which is only rarely the case if you ask me. Below are his main points with my replies:
1. Tom: Without ‘reaching across the aisle’ you will not have adequate support to implement your policy preferences.
Me: Coming from a scientist point of view, my prime concern is to advance the public understanding of the issues, and to fight efforts at increasing misunderstanding. From a policy advocacy position, you’re surely right. Though it’s an illusion that you could possibly get 100% of people to agree with your position. Some people are just dug in too deep.
2. Tom: What most skeptics want more than anything else is a seat at the table–to be listened to and taken seriously.
Me: Play by the scientific rules, and you have a seat. Publish, come to meetings, use real arguments.
Tom’s comeback: Climategate seems to show that the rules can be bent, and that some of those saying skeptics should get published in peer-reviewed journals are conspiring to prevent that from happening.
Me: “Climategate” shows that scientists are human too. I’ll concede that some unfortunate statements were made in a minuscule fraction of these emails. However, concerning peer review, the major problem discussed in the emails was how peer review broke down at Environmental Climate Research, by letting a methodologically flawed paper sail through review. See e.g. a recount of the story by then editor-in-chief Hans von Storch, who is as close to a non-alarmist climate scientist as you can get. See also an opinion piece on the stolen emails by him and Myles Allan in Nature. Specifically, they write: ”Even we —the two authors of this piece — find it impossible to agree whether or not some people went too far to ensure dominance for particular points of view. We do agree, however, that it is absurd to suggest there is some kind of global conspiracy involving all climate scientists.” And “What the e-mails do not prove — or even suggest — is that the main product of the CRU, namely the record of global surface air temperature based on thermometer readings, has been compromised.” This commentary is also very insightful. The widespread attack on science and on scientists is entirely uncalled for.
3. Tom: It has been convenient for ‘warmists’ to class all opposition as ‘denialists,’ usually adding such terms of endearment as ‘flat-earthers,’ etc. This has had the unfortunate effect (for ‘warmists’) of uniting the opposition.
Me: Although I try to refrain from using that term for pragmatic reasons, it seems befitting for more than a few. ‘Denialism’ relates to using certain tactics, and it exists in other areas as well (e.g. health issues). See also here.
Tom’s Comeback: I think ‘denialist’ is a political term used for political reasons, to class anyone who doesn’t agree with the activist point of view alongside those who denied the Holocaust. I don’t like it.
Me: The phrase “being in denial” is common English AFAIK, and is not only attributable to holocaust deniers. There are more things being denied by people than the holocaust. It is unfortunate that the term “denier” brings up associations with these characters, but it does not mean that the term doesn’t also apply to others. See e.g here, where they argue that denialism is based on conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic. What other name could be given to those engaging in these types of tactics? It’s clear that it has nothing to do with sincere scepticism. For lack of a better word, and to avoid angering people who are not aware of the ins and outs of the internet debate, I usually refer to them as “sceptics” in quotation marks. Where I agree with you is that it is not smart nor correct to class everybody who disagrees as a denier or denialist. Disagreement comes in many flavours, and not all amount to denialism (though some do, unfortunately).
4. Tom: Acknowledge error. Start with Steve McIntyre.
Bart: Genuine errors should, and are usually acknowledged. It’s a tricky thing to do so with people who are overtly hostile and having smeared you through the mud though. Scientists are human too: Accuse them too often of fraud, and they’ll stop listening to you.
Tom’s Comeback: Bart, is there any way you could justify hiding the divergence of proxy temperatures from real data in a presentation for non-scientists? For politicians debating on whether or not to spend $1 trillion a year of our money in response to what the graphic showed them?
Me: Admittedly I haven’t followed the details of the divergence discussions, but AKAIK, it was discussed in the IPCC report back then. In speaking to the public, the message necessarily has to be adapted, and it often means simplified. If I go to a scientific talk even remotely outside of my field, it’s incredibly hard to follow. Let alone if I were to go to a talk of a totally different discipline. There’s a catch 22 for scientists talking to the public.
More importantly, the decision to spend a trillion dollars doesn’t hinge on one graph. The importance of the hockeystick graph has been overstated to the extreme. Initially also by the IPCC itself, but since then mostly by the “sceptical” camp.
5. Tom: Free the data. Free the code. Open up the debate. From what I’ve seen of the people you think are your bitter enemies, they will respond with help, kindness and forgiveness of your boorish behaviour in the past.
Bart: There are more data and code available than you think. And your second argument that the response will be helpful, kind and forgiving is utterly naïve. It won’t change a single thing in the witch-hunt and anti-scientific attitudes.
Tom’s Comeback: Try us. Specifically, try Steve McIntyre. Ask him for help in his area of competence.
Bart: If McIntyre were sincerely interested in contributing to the science, he would do so. I looked in some detail into his role in the Yamal-debate. I was not impressed. For a more recent example, see eg here. He has made a niche for himself, and it is to provide fodder to “sceptics” and harass scientists. Whatever you say can and will be used against you, seems to be his motto. I completely understand why scientists are loath to try and accommodate him, even if at instances it may be counterproductive, and even if at instances he has a point. Basically, you’re damned it you do and damned if you don’t accommodate.
Constructive criticism is one thing; harassment is quite another. Do too much of the latter, and your efforts at the former will be stonewalled. Misguided? Perhaps. Human? Certainly.
6. Tom: Say a fond but firm farewell to those who have served you poorly in the struggle to gain public support. Al Gore. Joe Romm. (Not Jim Hansen or Gavin Schmidt.) Michael Mann. Phil Jones.
Bart: Scapegoating is not the answer.
Tom’s Comeback: I’m not saying get rid of them because I don’t like them, or even because I think they have acted wrongly. I’m saying get rid of them because they are a hindrance, not a help to your cause.
Bart: There is no board of scientist-directors anywhere who have the power to “get rid of” anyone as they seem fit. Apart from that, I disagree about the people you mention all having been a hindrance to advance public understanding; in some cases quite to the contrary (even if not without faults). There could be some (rather unethical) pragmatism to get rid of people who are receiving the most blame, in an effort to clean our plate, at least in the mindset of the “sceptical” public. But I disagree with such scapegoating.
7. Tom: Abandon the tactic of artificial deadlines and panic attacks. We have more than 10 minutes to save the Galaxy.
Me: There is no strict deadline. OTOH, the longer we wait with taking measures, the more drastically we have to reduce emissions later, which in the end will probably be more difficult and more expensive. Not to mention it increases the chance of crossing dangerous tipping points. So time is of the essence.
Tom’s Comeback: It will be more expensive, but we should be richer, right? As for tipping points, I think this is the core of our disagreement on the future of our climate in the near term. I just don’t see it happening.
Me: “Tipping points” is perhaps too loaded of a term. The world doesn’t end after it is crossed, nor is everything fine when it’s not crossed. Consider for example the increasing melt of both the Greenland and the Antarctic ice sheets. The dynamics of these melt processes are very uncertain (and potentially worrisome), but it’s very likely that once big changes are set in motion, it’s very difficult to reverse them. Even more so because the CO2 concentration responds only very slowly to emission reduction efforts. So by the time society realizes “whoops, we’re in serious trouble now”, it may be too late to reverse it by ordinary means. Warning signals from the science are ignored at our peril.
The costs of reducing emissions doesn’t rise linearly with the amount of emissions to be reduced. It rises more or less exponentially. That makes your argument that we’ll be richer in the future moot, at least beyond a certain level. There are arguments made that 4% emission reduction per year is more or less the maximum achievable; beyond that the regular way of innovation and change (learning curves etc) doesn’t apply anymore. It would necessitate much stronger and much more costly and invasive measures to go beyond that. Typically the kind of measures that the “sceptics” oppose most strongly.
Those who oppose strong control by the government, should really favor emission reductions to start sooner rather than later, to reduce the pain that the measures would otherwise cause. That point is easily overseen.
The last point, and in addition the fact that more uncertainty should make one more, not less careful, are the key concepts that “sceptics” are missing the mark on, I think.
8. Tom: Accentuate the positive. Almost all of the measures you advocate to help bring about a greener world are justified without a trace of global warming. Emphasize the common-sense approach
Me: True, but it risks painting a rosier picture than it really is. If solar energy is expensive, people won’t do it just because it’s cool or because it creates jobs. They may because it gives an innovation advantage down the road (but that already implies the reality of AGW).
Tom’s Comeback: I have no comeback. I will actually have to think about this for a while…
9. Tom: Don’t ever again be trapped into untruths by a desire to shorten the story line.
Bart: I don’t’ understand the “again” in this context. Which untruths? If anything, scientists are way too long winded and fond of weasel words as it is. (Guilty as charged…)
Tom’s Comeback: True, but they stayed out of trouble (and the limelight) most of the time before.
10. Tom: Be the first to bring this debate out of the morass of partisan politics. This isn’t a left vs right debate.
Me: Entirely correct. CO2 absorption isn’t influenced by political leanings. This is mostly a message though for those who let their political views blur their judgment of the science.
A mirror story, advice for “skeptics” is here.