I wasn’t sure whether or not to post the following. It comes across as a little whiny and pathetic, but I’ve been a little busy this week so haven’t really had a chance to do much else. Also, there were some questions on a recent post about using Twitter and so I thought I would write something about the value (or lack thereof) in using Twitter. As I said in my response to those questions, it can be very good as a mechanism for being exposed to information that you may not have found otherwise. As far as being a medium for discussing a contentious subject (such as climate change/global warming), it is fairly ineffective and possibly quite damaging.
I only really started engaging in the whole climate change/global warming debate about 6 months ago. I had had short forays into it in the past couple of years, but nothing substantial. In addition to this blog, I also have a Twitter account and have at times engaged in discussions there with people who would probably be regarded as pseudo-skeptics at best. A few people, who shall remain nameless, contacted me privately to suggest that I shouldn’t really engage in such exchanges with those people as it looked bad and gave them undue credibility. Although I realised that they were trying to be helpful, I found it a little irritating at the time. Who were they to tell me what to do and why would they assume that it wasn’t worthwhile to have a discussion with those people. I, rather naively, assumed that if one tried to remain reasonable, that it would be possible to have an interesting and worthwhile discussion with someone with whom you disagreed. I have now, not that surprisingly, discovered that I was wrong. There are certain people with whom a serious discussion is at best pointless and at worst damaging.
There is one non-pejorative reason why such discussions are not really worthwhile. Often they’re simply never-ending and typically circular. You essentially know what the other person is likely to say and they probably know what you’re likely to say. They’ll agree with nothing you say, and you’ll agree with nothing they say. If both parties are actually intending to both learn from the other party and maybe teach them something they didn’t know, it’s a rather pointless exercise. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with such discussions, but there’s only so many times that I can engage in them.
There are, however, some reasons why discussions with certain people should really be avoided. There are a number of common directions that certain discussions head in. One is mis-representation. “So, you think it’s good if scientific models fail”. “So, you want the poor to suffer.” “So, you want to go back to the dark ages.” You end up spending all your time defending what you’ve said against the other person’s mis-representations. Another common theme is to simply continue firing questions. As soon as you’ve answered one, there’s another that either challenges your response or moves in a completely different direction. You’re constantly on the back foot trying to respond, knowing that the other person will almost never give what you’ve said any real thought before firing off another question or challenge. Additionally, if you try asking a question of them it typically gets ignored and the whole discussion moves in a completely different direction.
Also, nothing is ever good enough. Uncertainty is king in such discussions. Ocean heat content data is recent, so can’t be trusted. Satellite measurements of the energy imbalance have large errors. In isolation, some of this issues have merit, but you need to consider the big picture rather than trying to find individual flaws with every little bit of evidence. I also find that I sometimes rather lose my cool and end up responding in ways that I don’t particularly like. I suspect this, in some sense, is the goal of the other person and so doing so effectively hands them some kind of success. If you try to extract yourself from the discussion you’re accused of running away when the questions get too difficult. If you don’t answer questions, you’re accused of engaging in “science by assertion”. It really is a lose-lose situation and one that I would regard as entirely pointless and well worth avoiding.
I should make clear, though, that I am talking about a certain type of discussion. It’s quite hard to explain how to identify such discussions early enough to avoid them, but you do start to learn. I have had some that have been quite worthwhile and valuable. I’m also not suggesting that others should simply take my word for it. I’m quite pleased that I’ve learned this for myself. I’m just a little disappointed that my initial optimism has been beaten out of me. I should also make clear that this is not because I’m disappointed that I haven’t managed to change anyone’s views about climate change/global warming. It’s simply disappointing that it’s not even really possible to engage in a discussion with some. I don’t care if they continue to disagree. Just be willing to consider alternatives and give them some thought. This whole division also seems to be reflected online. There are pseudo-skeptic blogs, and non-skeptic blogs. There doesn’t seem to be a smooth trend. There doesn’t really appear to be any in the middle. I might be wrong, but it does seem that the debate has become so polarised (maybe it’s been that way for quite some time to be honest) that there really isn’t any middle ground. If that doesn’t convince people that it’s become political, rather than scientific, I don’t know what else will.