My previous post seems to have hit a bit of a nerve in some quarters. Ben Pile, who authors the climate resistant blog, seems particularly annoyed. All I really said about Ben and his blog was that I found engaging there unpleasant, and that it was pretty tricky to have an actual debate there as he and his other commentators seemed unwilling to consider any issues with their own thinking. Ben’s response to this has been to call me a prick and write the following comment on his own blog (you could also read the comment he makes a bit later which suggests that he would acknowledge mistakes if any mistakes were identified). I think maybe Ben should look up the definition of the word ironic. I’m always more than happy to consider that I may have characterised someone unfairly. I’m, however, unlikely to do so if they immediately provide evidence to suggest that my initial characterisation was entirely reasonable.
Anyway, Anthony Watts is gobsmacked about a recent Guardian article that paints him in a fairly positive light. The article is called are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method? It’s written by Warren Pearce who is a Leverhulme Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham on the Making Science Public programme (which is actually where Ben Pile’s post – that started most of this debate – about the consensus project was published). I think the basic conclusion of the article is no, climate sceptics are not the true defenders of the scientific method. If I understood the point being made (and I found the article a little confusing to follow) it’s because it’s hard to differentiate between politically motivated views and views that are motivated by a genuine desire to understand the evidence. Also, one should distinguish between discussions on policy – in which opinion does play a valid role – and discussions about the science – in which opinion really shouldn’t play a role.
However, the article did paint Anthony Watts and other sceptic bloggers in a reasonably positive light. Anthony Watts objects to the views of those who are often called slayers. Slayers, as far as I can tell, do not believe that CO2 is a greenhouse gas and do not believe in the greenhouse effect (which is what keeps the Earth at a nice balmy +15oC, rather than a rather frigid -18oC). There is no evidence to support these views and such people are – given the evidence – simply wrong. Anthony Watts apparently carried out an experiment to show this and posted the results on youtube. Basically, as far as I can tell, Anthony Watts believes, and has shown, that there is no evidence to support the views of slayers and hence their views should be dismissed. I agree. Kudos to Anthony.
However, this is where I get a little less complimentary. What Anthony did was a good example of the scientific method. However, he should be willing to go further and consider the possibility that some of his ideas, or the ideas presented on his blog, are also wrong. In fairness, everyone should be willing to consider that. However, as you may imagine, it’s certainly my view that there are far more ideas presented on sceptic blogs that are demonstrably incorrect, than on non-sceptic blogs. The main motivation behind me starting this blog was because I was tired of reading things on Anthony’s blog that were clearly scientifically incorrect. I thought I may write a post every now and again that tried to address something said on Anthony’s blog. I started in April and am now on post 153. In fairness, I’m sure I’ve got some things wrong, so feel free to point out what and where (in fact, some already have). I really don’t mind being wrong. I don’t think being wrong really means anything. It’s part of the scientific process. It’s much more concerning if someone thinks nothing they’ve said is wrong than if they appear willing to admit to an error. I will say, however, that simply telling me that I’m wrong is not going to be enough to convince me that I am.
So, yes, it would be wonderful if the debate/discussion about climate science could be more open and pleasant. It would be wonderful if everyone was willing to present their evidence and consider the evidence of others. I’m all for that. There is, however, a caveat – in my opinion at least. Climate science is difficult and complicated. It involves an understanding of physics and chemistry. It requires an ability to understand data analysis, computer modelling, errors and uncertainties, and many other complex scientific practices and procedures. There seem, however, to be a reasonable number of intelligent, well-educated lay-people who think that because they can use Excel and because they can plot complicated functions, that they’ve somehow highlighted a major problem with climate science that climate scientists are simply ignoring.
There are only two things that I can conclude from such claims. They either think that climate scientists are stupid, or they think there’s a conspiracy. Although, at some miniscule level, this could be possible, it does seem highly unlikely. It is much more likely that such people simply do not know enough about climate science to draw the kind of conclusions that they are drawing from the data that they’re analysing. It is very easy to mis-interpret data associated with a very complex science area. So, in my opinion, what’s required is that people stop under-mining climate scientists and their employers (I’m amazed by the criticism leveled at the UK Met Office, for example). These are, by and large, very bright, well-qualified people, many of whom have been working professionally in this field for a long time. The chance that they are all (or a majority) simply wrong is vanishingly small. That’s not to say that they aren’t wrong about some things. Science is always changing as new evidence emerges. Simply that their understanding of climate science and what the evidence is telling us is almost certainly better than some economist (just a example, not trying to pick on economists especially) who knows how to use Excel.
So, I’m all in favour of the debate about climate science being more open, honest and pleasant. This will, however, require some major changes in how some people behave. I’m sure there are aspects of how scientists are engaging that could be improved but I do think that the major problem is that many are simply ignoring or under-mining what scientists are trying to say. Until sceptics can accept that climate scientists are not carrying out some kind of conspiracy or are not complete idiots, I don’t really see how the discussion is going to improve. You may think I’m expecting more from the sceptic community than from the formal climate science community and you’d probably be right. But, science isn’t a democracy and isn’t about opinion. Just because you have a view doesn’t mean that it deserves to be heard or considered. If we aren’t willing to recognise that the first group we should be turning to to explain the evidence associated climate science are climate scientists, then I think we’ve failed before we’ve even started.
You’re welcome to disagree, of course. What I’ve written here is my opinion and I can’t prove that I’m right using some fundamental law of physics. However, recognising that how we should discuss aspects of this debate in which opinions have validity is different to how we should approach discussions associated with the scientific evidence would be, in my opinion, a major step forward.