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Oct 24 2013

Skepticism v denialism

And another item, from the ever-valuable David Robert Grimes: Climate change is real, ignore the denialists in the Irish Times.

…climate change has been scientifically beyond doubt for a long time. Yet despite virtually all climatologists and researchers confirming this with vast swathes of supporting evidence, there are still loud voices doing their utmost to persuade us that the issue is still somehow open for debate.

In the US roughly half of media reports on climate change have doubted its existence. Publications like the Daily Mail, the Wall Street Journal and numerous Murdoch press give editorial support to these views.

Cynical and insulting

Such contrarian writers and broadcasters paint themselves as climate “sceptics”, but this is a calculated misnomer. Scepticism is an essential part of scientific endeavour. It demands all claims are treated as unproven until evidence and experience either confirm or falsify them. Denialism, by contrast, is the stubborn and persistent refusal to acknowledge what the evidence shows beyond all reasonable doubt.

Evidence for climate change is overwhelming, confirmed by measurement, theory and experiment. Self-proclaimed climate “sceptics” are nothing of the sort; they are rank denialists, deliberately refusing to accept the incontrovertible evidence that their position is untenable.

There’s a lot of that around, on a number of subjects.

31 comments

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  1. 1
    Al Dente

    Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. -Philip K. Dick

  2. 2
    Ian MacDougall

    IMHO, the most powerful denialist argument is simply this: human-induced climate change cannot possibly be happening, because if it was, it would be bad for established business.

    End of story.

  3. 3
    RJW

    Certainly some climate change deniers, particularly those that without any appropriate qualifications, are sincere but ignorant, however, there are others with a more sinister agenda. It’s part of the usual game that industrialists and their allies in politics and the media play of transferring the costs of the externalities of production onto the taxpayer and the public. The long squalid, battle between cigarette manufacturers and public health authorities in many countries is an obvious example, the manufacturers were well aware of the health risks of cigarette smoking for decades before the public. So, until the majority of the smart money is transferred into renewables the professional climate change deniers will continue to be noisy and well-funded.

  4. 4
    Ian MacDougall

    RJW:

    There is a certain similarity between the cigarette lobby’s tobacco denialism and modern carbon denialism, I grant you. But the smoker who persisted in smoking despite the medical evidence against was mainly risking his/her own life, and the public health risk flowing from that was somewhat less: via passive smoking, financial clout of the tobacco industry, etc.
    But on climate change, and global warming, we are all in the same planetary boat.
    As far as I can gather, mainstream climatology puts a 90-95% probability on the validity of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) hypothesis.(Last time I looked, James Hansen said it was 90%.) On the other hand, the carbon denialists have to asert a 100% certainty that there is no real or possible AGW effect, for anything less admits a risk. And as we are definitely sailing in uncharted waters here, any such risk might just finish up being catastrophic.
    While I am sure that many denialists sincerely want to believe that AGW is rubbish, there are probably many cynics among them who are investing in renewables on the side (if it is the trendy thing, hey why not join in?) or else betting both ways, with an eye to relocating to Alaska, the South Island of New Zealand, or say Terra del Fuego if things get too hot at their present location.

  5. 5
    RJW

    Ian,

    “But on climate change, and global warming, we are all in the same planetary boat.”

    Agreed, my point that it’s the same old cynical game that industrialists have used to protect their businesses since the start of the Industrial Revolution, whether the stakes are the health of individuals or the entire planet is immaterial, the prime objective is the protection of profits and ultimately, capital for as long as possible. It’s extremely naive to assume that climate change ‘sceptics’ are dissenting in good faith, so attempts to present the evidence to them are pointless.

    Of course it’s also very easy for politicians manipulate the public’s scientific ignorance, I’m rather pessimistic as to whether anything effective will be achieved, particularly when conservative governments are in power.

    The ‘boiling frog’ analogy is irresistible.

  6. 6
    Ian MacDougall

    Yes. Their short-term thinking is so intense and their focus on the next balance sheet so all-consuming that they could finish up frying themselves (and the rest of us). But in the short term again, if they don’t give a damn about anyone else, they can choose whatever retirement location, wherever they like.

    There is a strong correlation between right-wing politics and carbon denialism in my experience. The Murdoch press is full of it, particularly in the form of the ‘warmists don’t care about your job’ trope.

    Ironically, it is confirmation of Marx’s famous dictum (from ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’):

    “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

    Gina Rinehart, mining magnate, world’s richest woman, ultra right winger and extreme carbon denialist confirms this brilliantly in her own example. In spades. See my blog:
    http://noahsarc.wordpress.com/plimers-climatology-101/

    http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

  7. 7
    Minnow

    The trouble is that this article doesn’t address climate change scepticism, it simply targets strawmen and bogeys like the ‘Murdoch Press’ and fringe enthusiasts. Right from the off it is slippery with claims like:

    …climate change has been scientifically beyond doubt for a long time.

    because of course the climate is changing, it always was, always will be. It would be very different if he had written ‘catastrophic climate warming has been scientifically beyond doubt for a long time’, because that is the salient issue and, as he knows very well, it is far from beyond doubt. That is why some sceptics, like me, are a bit suspicious of the spokespeople for the warming industry as it gobbles up grants and churns out models that don’t work only to pepper the papers with ad hoc arguments for why the predictive models should never have been expected to predict anything anyway. The question isn’t whether the climate is changing, or even if it has been warming, but whether those events are driven by human activity (I think yes), whether they are unprecedented (I think no), whether we sufficiently climate to predict what will occur in the short,, medium, or long term (I think very obviously not) and whether understand what is and whether they are a significant danger to the human race such that enormous funds should be driven away from social projects towards the green energy industry (I think we should be sceptical).

  8. 8
    spacejunkie

    Historian Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detail the link between climate change denialism and the tobacco harm denialism in their book Merchants of Doubt. According to them the same methodology developed by Fred Seitz and Fred Singer as consultants to the tobacco companies in the 70s and 80s to deny the cancer link they used with oil companies to muddy climate science.

    Oreskes has some lectures on this up on Youtube, they are worth a look.

  9. 9
    phill

    Minnow,

    The view that the ‘climate is changing, it always was, always will be’ depends on the time scale resolution you choose and your temporal viewpoint. The precession of the Earth’s poles of rotation leads to changes in the length of summer and winter in cycles of around 26,000 years; changes in the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit alter our planet’s distance from the Sun and cycle over periods of 125,000 and 400,000 years and change the amount of solar radiation received; and the angle between the Earth’s axis of rotation and the plane of its orbit (it’s axial tilt) moves between 22.1° and 24.5° with a period of about 41,000, with a large effect on heat distribution over the northern and southern hemispheres. These are the Milankovitch cycles and it’s worth laying these out in some detail because when climate change deniers (not sceptics; all scientists are sceptics) say, ‘the earth’s climate is always changing’ they often omit to mention the timescales over which that happens, as it doesn’t help their case when we are discussing important changes that may happen over the span of a single human lifetime.

    If you were to say that the weather is always changing you would, of course, be absolutely right. But climate is the average of weather over time and varies much more slowly. The Earth’s climate system is relatively stable unless acted upon by some external force, usually by some change in incoming solar radiation driven by orbital or rotational changes as described above. Deniers often point to the ‘Little Ice Age’ or the ‘Mediaeval Warm Period’ as examples of climate change with smaller temporal resolution and without any human cause (and therefore entirely ‘natural’), But these were regional, not global changes, and seem to have been caused by changes in solar radiation, volcanic activity, perhaps, an unusual combination of orbital mechanics. we can account for all of those factors today and none of them can be driving the currently observed warming.

    The idea that climate scientists are driving a ‘warming agenda’ to gain grants and other resources is nonsense. A Nobel Prize and a waterfall of money awaits the scientist who can produce peer-reviewed research concluding that there is no problem. But the research is comprehensive and its results solid. Fundamentally, it is just basic physics and I doubt event the most committed climate change denier would question the validity of the ‘greenhouse principle’, that certain gasses in the atmosphere allow shorter wave solar radiation through, which warms the surface and lower atmosphere, but then block the escape of the longer wave radiation emitted as a result of that heating. The results are easily summarised. Incoming solar radiation is relatively constant over the timescale of decades. Earth’s atmosphere contains gasses that block radiation with certain frequencies. As a result of human activity increasing the concentration of those gasses in the atmosphere the amount of heat that remains ‘trapped’ is increasing over time. The heat balance of the Earth’s systems (atmosphere, hydrosphere and cryosphere in particular) is thus changing. What the results of those changes will be is difficult to know; time will tell.

  10. 10
    Maureen Brian

    Minnow @ 7,

    The idea of models is not to predict every last detail with 100% accuracy. For that you need magic.

    A model in the sciences is there to help people understand what’s going on, sketch out the parameters within which subsequent events are likely – likely, not certain – to fall and sometimes to indicate a direction of travel.

    The last time we as a species did a huge experiment with the climate was when we adopted agriculture. Sure, there were effects on climate but we did that one over several millennia and those changes were imperceptible.

    This time we set off a giant experiment in the global chemistry lab and we are seeing the results now. The fact that this chain reaction is so complex that not everyone understands every last detail is not an argument against anthropogenic climate change. It is an argument for more knowledge.

    It’s very rainy where I now sit but through the drips I can see a canal built in the 1790s which would soon be used to shift coal to the textile mills in the valley. Most people date the start of the Industrial revolution to about 40 years before that. So in 360/370 years we have totally changed Earth’s atmosphere. Yes, major changes have happened before but we weren’t around then to notice or care.

    Among those who know the various aspects of the subject, who have spent 20, 30, 40 years taking the measurements, there is 97% agreement. http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus

    To wait for absolute certainty is selfish and irresponsible, considering the impact if almost all of the scientists are right. Oh, sure! The planet will continue and we’ll get the prize for being the first species to orchestrate our own extinction while, in due time, some other species will hop into our evolutionary niche and develop the massive brain power we could be using now to mitigate the negative effects.

    Or could mitigate them only if we stopped bringing hubris and faux scepticism into the argument.

  11. 11
    Maureen Brian

    Sorry, folks!

    260/270 years!

  12. 12
    Ian MacDougall

    When I last looked, the eminent climatologist James Hansen was putting a 90% probability on the existence of AGW (anthropogenic global warming). That (about a year ago from memory) was his limit of certainty on the matter. As a general rule, nothing can ever be taken as absolutely 100% certain in nature.

    ‘Warmists’ like Hansen do not have to have 100% certainty in order to say we have a problem. If I had, say, a constant craving for (hydrogen cyanide rich) almonds and apple seeds in my diet, and my medical advice put a 90% chance on it killing me in the short term, then most would I think say that I had a definite problem.

    The carbon denialist has to claim 100% certainty, no less, that the ‘warmist’ scientific orthodoxy is dead wrong, because anything less than 100% certainty allows the possibility that the science is right, and that we possibly face severe consequences, right up to outright climate catastrophe, however defined. That, I suggest, is why they are all so uncompromising.

    As a ‘warmist’, I would dearly love it if the denialists turned out to be right. Apart from other considerations, as a primary producer (from NW New South Wales) I do not find much to cheer about in the long-term climate forecasts, such as they are. What leads me to be sceptical of the ‘sceptics’ is the high incidence of ‘them amongst people whose livelihood depends on emission-as-usual: the mining and fossil-fuel industries in particular. For many of them, and for quite understandable reasons, it is a case of ‘where your income is, there will your heart be also’.

    It is a bit rich when these people accuse the climatologists of venality and corruption; valuing the truth far less than their next research grant..

  13. 13
    lachlano

    This author of this article is simply ignorant, and has clearly made no effort to understand the arguments about climate change and how to deal with it.

    You will be very hard pressed to find many people denying that the climate is changing. In fact, all of the prominent so-called deniers acknowledge that the climate is warming overall and that human emissions contribute to that warming.

    The actual debate, which is completely missed by all those slinging the denier pejorative, is how much of observed warming is due to human activity, whether that warming will be dangerous, and whether emissions cuts is the best policy response. The are serious questions, worthy of debate. Yet what we get is day after day of straw-man trash like this, seeking only to have the whole subject declared off-limits.

  14. 14
    Routemaster

    I first came across the idea of anthropogenic climate change when I was doing IT work in the reinsurance industry in the late eighties and early nineties. Reinsurers are very cautious and can afford to sponsor good quality long-term research; they do not care what the research tells them as long as it’s reliable and, in this case, gives them accurate predictions of frequency and severity of extreme weather events, so they can set premiums. They are motivated by accuracy in prediction rather than the actual outcome.

    So, I’m curious to know what evidence Minnow @7 has that climatologists have been committing fraud that can easily be discovered (you have photos of brown envelopes changing hands, perhaps?) or where the errors in their data and models are.

  15. 15
    Minnow

    A model in the sciences is there to help people understand what’s going on, sketch out the parameters within which subsequent events are likely – likely, not certain – to fall and sometimes to indicate a direction of travel.

    Yes, but the climate models we have are very close to failing in those terms and that is a problem that it is silly just to brush away. If there is no warming in the next couple of years we will fall out of the bottom range of all the accepted models so they will simply be wrong. That demands a bit of thought, not hand waving. If we want to re-model the world economy, we had better have predictive models that are a bit more useful than this.

    A model in the sciences is there to help people understand what’s going on, sketch out the parameters within which subsequent events are likely – likely, not certain – to fall and sometimes to indicate a direction of travel.

    I haven’t accused anyone of fraud, nor would I.

  16. 16
    Minnow

    Sorry, last comment was supposed to be a reply to routemaster.

  17. 17
    Routemaster

    Minnow @14

    You write about a “warming industry” that “gobbles up grants” and “produces models that don’t work” so climatologists have gained pecuniary advantage either through error or through deceit. Now, the reinsurance industry are aware of the risks associated with models and they perform really thorough due diligence, particularly in the light of the history asbestosis claims, so what evidence do you have of errors have they missed in the former case or actual fraud in the latter.

    You aren’t being sceptical at all: you could easily substitute “Big Pharma” for “warming industry” in your posts and use them in a homeopathy or anti-vaccine thread.

  18. 18
    Minnow

    Routemaster, I have not and am not accusing anyone of fraud. The climate models are looking very weak right now and that needs to be faced up to, but that does not imply fraudulence. I know nothing at all about the reinsurance industry, so can’t comment there, but I am sure it is very interesting to people who are interested in that sort of thing.

  19. 19
    Al Dente

    laclano @13

    You will be very hard pressed to find many people denying that the climate is changing.

    These people don’t think the climate is changing.

    19% of people polled in the UK deny climate change.

    Anthony Watts is making a good living as a climate denialist.

    The actual debate, which is completely missed by all those slinging the denier pejorative, is how much of observed warming is due to human activity, whether that warming will be dangerous, and whether emissions cuts is the best policy response. The are serious questions, worthy of debate. Yet what we get is day after day of straw-man trash like this, seeking only to have the whole subject declared off-limits.

    This may be true in your world. Here on Earth we still have to convince people that (a) climate change is happening, (b) the change will not be good, and (c) we have to do something about it. We’re still at point (a) in the climate change discussion.

  20. 20
    Al Dente

    I have a longer post that’s in moderation, probably because of links I give to climate change denialists. Here’s the second part of my post:

    lachlano @13

    The actual debate, which is completely missed by all those slinging the denier pejorative, is how much of observed warming is due to human activity, whether that warming will be dangerous, and whether emissions cuts is the best policy response. The are serious questions, worthy of debate. Yet what we get is day after day of straw-man trash like this, seeking only to have the whole subject declared off-limits.

    This may be true in your world. Here on Earth we still have to convince people that (a) climate change is happening, (b) the change will not be good, and (c) we have to do something about it. We’re still at point (a) in the climate change discussion.

  21. 21
    Ian MacDougall

    Minnow @# 15:

    “… If there is no warming in the next couple of years we will fall out of the bottom range of all the accepted models so they will simply be wrong. That demands a bit of thought, not hand waving. If we want to re-model the world economy, we had better have predictive models that are a bit more useful than this.”

    I assume here that by ‘warming’ in the above context, you mean that which is detected by thermometers at various locations around the world. If that is so, then those thermometers tend to support you. Denialists make much of reliability problems inherent in ground-based thermometry (‘urban heat island effect’ in particular.)

    But there is another thermometer. The whole planet is a thermometer and is taking its own temperature. The warming shows up as sea level rise.

    If glacial ice melts, sea level rises. If there is thermal expansion in the oceans, sea level rises. Although denialists hunt around for alternative explanations, they come up with nothing credible. Sea level is rising according to the U of Colorado source below at 3.2 +/- 0.4 mm per year with seasonal signals removed. The history of denialism to date has been first to deny that the planet is warming at all, then second to concede that it is warming but to deny that humans can have any possible role in bringing it about, then third, to concede that humans possibly have some role in it, however slight.

    With denialists, their science flows from their politics, and their politics flows from their own perceived economic interests. As a primary producer, I prefer to base my politics (in the sense of ‘what should we do?’) on science: that is, on what is going on in nature as far as we can determine it. The ore-body geologist Ian Plimer concluded his denialist book ‘Heaven and Earth’ with the following observation:

    “Human stupidity is only exceeded by God’s mercy, which is infinite.”

    The inference I take from that is that we can mine and burn as much fossil fuel as we like, and without fear of any consequences, because God will look after us. (His major denialist tome ‘Heaven and Earth’ is published by the Australian Catholic publisher Connor Court.)

    I prefer to put my fate, and that of my descendants, in something more substantial than that highly variable notion we know as ‘God’.

    But, everyone to their own devices….

    sealevel.colorado.edu/‎
    http://noahsarc.wordpress.com/plimers-climatology-105-lard-franklins-dream/

  22. 22
    otrame

    @6, who quoted Marx:

    “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”

    Or, as Mark Twain said:

    Tell me where a man gets his corn pone and I’ll tell you what his opinions are.

  23. 23
    Omar Puhleez

    otrame,

    Bevity may be the soul of wit, though not necessarily of philosophical profundity. But Mark Twain wasn’t bad.
    ;-)

  24. 24
    lachlano

    Al Dente @19

    That you classify Anthony Watts as a “climate denialist” supports my point. He does not deny that the climate is changing, he does not deny humans have an impact. He does say that the severity of the problem has been hugely overstated. This, apparently, is not worthy of being called skepticism, it must be written off as denial.

  25. 25
    medivh

    Minnow: a large number of the climate models are actually a lot closer to correct than the data they’re currently producing might otherwise indicate. Computing power on the scale needed to run a climate model is expensive, and research organisations, contra your beliefs, aren’t swimming in cash on the area of climate change.

    The Met Office in the UK runs the same model to predict climate as they do to offer weather forecasting. A few years back, their climate modelling improved massively, and their four-day forecast went from missing a top temperature by as many as 10 degrees C to rarely falling even a single degree outside of accurate. The change? More computing power and therefore a higher resolution model run in the same time period.

    You want more accurate results? Supercomputing clusters with exabytes of storage are needed. Badly.

  26. 26
    A. Noyd

    lachlano (#24)

    He does not deny that the climate is changing, he does not deny humans have an impact. He does say that the severity of the problem has been hugely overstated. This, apparently, is not worthy of being called skepticism, it must be written off as denial.

    You know, there are plenty of creationists who believe that microevolution is real—like light colored moths evolving into dark colored moths—but who balk at macroevolution. They say no number of small changes can add up to speciation; that god is necessarily responsible for making species different. Yet, we don’t call such creationists “evolution skeptics,” we call them denialists. They may accept a token portion of the theory of evolution, but they’re still denying the bulk of the theory and all the thoroughly established science that supports the fact that evolution is responsible for all the diversity of life on earth.

  27. 27
    Ian MacDougall

    lachlano:

    “He [Watts] does not deny that the climate is changing, he does not deny humans have an impact. He does say that the severity of the problem has been hugely overstated.”

    He must have information that is beyond the reach of the specialist scientific community then. I am curious to know how he arrives at that conclusion.

  28. 28
    patterson

    I guess what with Harper defunding climate research in Canada we can expect Canadian climate scientists to start singing a different tune any day now, eh Minnow?

  29. 29
    Al Dente

    I notice that lachlano argues that Anthony Watts isn’t really a denialist since he will admit there “might be climate change” (to quote Watts) and it “might be caused by human activity” (again Watts’ words). But okay, for the sake of argument, I’ll agree that Watts might not be a strict denalist and might even, if you don’t look too hard, might even be classified as a extremely dubious skeptic. That still says nothing about what many American congresscritters believe. They’re the important denialists, not Watts or Lord Monckton.

    Here’s a Guardian article from last month: Obama Climate Change Plan Gets First Airing in Front of House Sceptics

    About a dozen members of the House energy committee deny the science behind climate change, and those contrarian views were on full display on Wednesday…Republicans in the last Congress voted 53 times to block climate action, and held up [EPA Administrator Gina] McCarthy’s nomination for months.

    About a third of the House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans are active climate denalists. That includes the chairman, Fred Upton (R-MI). If you know anything about Congress works, you’ll know that if a committee chairman doesn’t want a bill to be voted on by the committee so it can reach the House floor, it’ll die a silent death.

  30. 30
    Nick Gotts

    *sigh*
    The usual crew of denialist bullshitters turns up to muddy the waters, trotting out the same old crap about how climate is “always changing” (yes, but not at anything like the speed we’ve seen in the past few decades) and how climate scientists are a bunch of fraudsters (and your denials that that’s what you meant are tosh, Minnow, your meaning was abundantly clear).

    The scientific consensus is clear: anthropogenic climate change is real, and requires urgent action to avoid highly probable disaster. Those such as Anthony Watts, and Minnow and lachlano here, are denialists, just as much and with just as little justification as creationists and anti-vaxxers are. That surface temperatures do not rise in a straight line is no surprise at all: the 15-year period from 1998 began with an unusually strong El Nino, which pushes them up, and ended with two significant La Ninas, which hold them down. Meanwhile, as Ian MacDougall says, sea level rise, which reflects the absorption of heat by the ocean (where most of it goes), continues unabated. See here and here for more detail, and of course the AR5 IPCC report for the fullest available account of the scientific consensus.

  31. 31
    Minnow

    and your denials that that’s what you meant are tosh, Minnow, your meaning was abundantly clear

    It wasn’t what I meant and it isn’t what I think. If your reading comprehension is this poor, I think you should be more sceptical of your own ability to follow the climate change arguments. It is quite unlikely that you have understood them.

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