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What do I know? Well, not much science…

May 10, 2009

Sometimes in climate change debates I am confronted by detailed science. This happened the other day, when someone posited a whole range of theories, and concluded by asking me “What would be your best fit theory?” It was at this point I realised I didn’t have one, and the reasons for this were worth exploring.

I do not have a climate change theory of my own. Mine are all second hand, and there is a good reason for this.

I am, quite simply, a scientific layman. There are those who have a far greater understanding of the scientific detail than I do. Early on in my writing life, I pontificated a few times on the science and got severely burned. I learned my lesson and now stick to what little I know something (anything?) about.

My professional background is business analysis and later serving as a board officer. I write about what I learned about the way humans do things – a self styled (if pretentious) cultural commentator. My first book was on this subject (it’s a free PDF  if you’re at all interested). Consequently, I cannot respond, agree or disagree with any of the specific points, data or theories people make because I just don’t know enough about it.

But what I can do is offer my take on the cultural problem that undermines this subject. Because I am a punter I am being asked, as most of us are, to take this issue on trust. As an avid reader of history, I can posit that since the aristocracy sent millions of young men to die fighting out their armchair great game strategies, we have become more and more aware of the way our trust has been relentlessly abused over time, culminating in Iraq, neocons, dodgy dossiers, fraudulent expenses and the like. Nothing has changed except the skill with which, in a purported democracy and a vast network of information/propaganda outlets, our trust continues to be abused, pretty much on a daily basis, while each incursion is cunningly disguised as beneficial, necessary,  expedient or simply within the letter of the law (with no mention of its spirit). In fact, and at the risk of invoking Godwin’s law, I believe the most terrible thing of all that the Nazi’s did – the most lasting evil if you like – was to create a template for the total indoctrination of a population through propaganda (i.e. spin), where millions of people come to support the most horrendous political agenda. In the circumstances, is it surprising that so many people are distrustful of moral authorities?

Here we are being asked to trust once more a government that has relentless abused that trust, scientists allied to them and tarred with the same brush, and of course the media that colludes with them more often than not and distorts every message that will increase their revenue without the slightest acknowledgement of the cultural implications of doing so in such a venal and misleading way.

And we, the punters, cannot understand enough of this science to make our own decisions. So it becomes a stark choice: accept and trust, condemn and distrust, or sit in some uncomfortable no-man’s land of equivocation and confusion.

I have made my choice, because I believe in the scientific method – theory, experimental design, test, document, analyse, peer review, publish and be damned, or lauded – and that this methodology will sort out, eventually, the wheat from chaff. The Cold Fusion fiasco is a case in point I often think about, for despite Fleischmann and Pons’ reputations, they got short shrift once they published. I hope climate science will be subject to the same rigour that eliminates bias, opinion or fabrication, but acknowledge that this takes time. There will always be vested interest, corruption and fraud, but in time the scientific method seems to root out all deception. I place my trust in this, carefully and with a certain apprehension, but I still choose to trust because at heart I believe there is more good in people than bad, but if we lose the ability to trust, the bad will profit from our loss while the good gain nothing at all except a brutal cynicism that discolours everything we ever do.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne-Marie permalink
    May 13, 2009 3:25 pm

    Ah, but you will by now have noticed that the ‘other side’ knows even less science than you do. To be fair, your scientific knowledge of climate change is well above average. I guess all we can do is to trust scientists until CTF displaces AGW as the theory of choice.

  2. gpwayne permalink*
    May 13, 2009 3:51 pm

    Anne-Marie – this is delightful. You are very welcome here.

    I try to keep up, and I have spent time on the cryrosphere since there is less stats and more photos! I’m not entirely dumb, but I know my place when dealing with people like you, Nelthon, Deconvoluter, Aslioch et al (dangerous list alert again!). As for CTF, I’m pretty baffled but I like the way Matt can bring himself to apologise now and then, which is rare enough, but also that he cracked at least one joke. He’s trying hard (too hard) but I cannot be disrespectful to committed people, even when they are in error, which I think he is (but then I would say that, wouldn’t I).

    No idea what I’m going to do if denialists start turning up here. But I do have the moderators awesome power at my disposal – bwa haa haaaaa….(dips head in bucket of cold water).

  3. Anne-Marie permalink
    May 13, 2009 6:13 pm

    Careful now, you’re showing your emotional and irrational side again 😉

    Thanks for the welcome, seems like a nice cosy place. And I’ve enjoyed reading your posts.

    I wouldn’t say that my scientific knowledge is any better than yours. I did do a module on climate change as part of my degree (BSc Environmental Biology) but it was a geography module so the scientific dimension was quite limited. I’m trying to brush up on the physical aspects of ACC since I’m always banging on about them. There are quite a few aspects I’d like to work on really as they crop up regularly and it would be nice to have ready made arguments – just to make my life easier. An history of the evolution of the denial of climate change is quite tempting, too.

    Anyway, I enjoy your input on those climate change related threads. I tend to limit myself to the purely scientific side of things so I learn quite a lot from other perspectives.

  4. gpwayne permalink*
    May 13, 2009 8:30 pm

    That’s not my emotional side – it’s my feminine side!

    I’m interested in science, but my passion is for culture in its broadest sense – how we relate to each other and the world around us. I find denialism terrifying because it is a symptom of the darkest part of us. I have been reading about life in Berlin in 1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics, and the propaganda methods, arguments used and mob mentality are frighteningly familiar – a quick glance at the Bedwetter’s little diatribe is the perfect example of what I mean.

    As Gandhi said: you must be the change you wish to see in the world. I am, through my writing, trying to live up to that responsibility, albeit on a modest scale. I am glad you enjoy my work though – I do think as as writer I have a duty to entertain as well as inform (on rare occasions) so if I have touched you in a way you find pleasing, as a writer I could ask for no more.

  5. Tracy permalink
    May 14, 2009 9:13 am

    Well, I left real science a long time ago – hard to believe I have a BSc because I rarely get to dig out all of that rusty knowledge now, much to my shame – though I’ve always been interested in science (I can’t understand how people can be proud that they don’t know something!) – so yes, I usually leave the science arguments to the scientists, too.

    On the issue of trust – having been on ‘the other side’ I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them (and since I’m an 8-stone weakling, that really wouldn’t be very far). The distortions and deceptions all seem to be on their side. Yes, there have been examples of fraudulent scientists – but they are few and far between. You mention cold fusion, I always think of Dr Wakefield and his fixed results to try and prove a link between MMR and autism – how many children suffered from measles because their parents either refused to have them vaccinated, or they were too young to be vaccinated but the ‘herd immunity’ has disappeared in some communities, as a direct result of his ‘scientific’ study? Nonetheless, you remember these exceptions simply because they are so very rare.

    Why was I on the other side for a while? Many reasons, one of them is that skeptics argument about vested interests within the scientific community. My dad died of stomach cancer, a few years after having an op for a stomach ulcer. I vividly remember the impact of that Horizon programme about the Australian doctor and his pioneering work discovering th bacterium Helicobacter pylori as being the main cause of stomach ulcers – and what really struck me was that it took ten years for the medical establishment to accept it. Of course, thinking about it now, that analogy actually works for Climate Change – because the expert in this case was the Australian doctor – the medical establishment comprises many doctors who have no specialist knowledge of ulcer formation – but at the time it seemed to say the opposite.

  6. Tracy permalink
    May 14, 2009 9:19 am

    Yes, they know less science – though a few of them are very good at bluffing. What I find really telling is that the skeptics have so few ‘real’ scientists they can point to as supporting their ideology. When you start looking into their scientific claims in detail, they are all built on sand. Then we get onto the claims that the peer-reviewed scientific journals won’t print their papers because they are biased against them (nope, it’s because they don’t stand up to scrutiny, especially if the author is one C. Monckton)

  7. Anne-Marie permalink
    May 14, 2009 2:59 pm

    Some are very good at bluffing. Look at the CTF fiasco – it’s a perfect illustration of denialist mindset. The problem is that if you don’t have a scientific background at all, and/or are not aware of scientific methods, you will have no idea what sources can be trusted and which cannot. It’s one of the reasons I’ll carry on being a broken record on these threads, no matter how anal it makes me come across.

    And yes, once you’ve exposed the lack of science, the attacks start on scientists and scientific bodies (the IPCC), the allocation of grants and the peer review itself. Never substantiated of course. I had a whole discussion with Mr Rational Sceptic – avoid it at all costs – as he claimed the IPCC ignored articles that contradicted its position. He was basing that on one ‘contentious’ article but of course he could not prove it had actually been ignored. So he called me irrational, told me I’d lost the argument since I couldn’t refute his non-proven claim and told me to do better in future. Sounds familiar, Graham? It looks like they also now try to discredit anyone who questions their claims.

  8. gpwayne permalink*
    May 14, 2009 3:23 pm

    Hmm – only just realised one can reply to an individual comment, not just stack them up like in CiF. (…and this is my blog…ho hum…ignorance is bliss, but it does mean you remain ignorant).

    The “you’ve lost the argument” trope is bait, a wind-up. The self-congratulatory tone is entirely consistent with the arrogance, the patronising remarks, the general unpleasantness. These are not debating techniques, they are hectoring in the guise of a lecture from a condescending demagogue with no qualifications to be giving it.

    You make the point about “being anal” as you put it, but the broken record syndrome is simply a facet of the overall method – constant repetition (you saw my pointed post I expect where I quoted Goebbels and Hitler on this). The reason we have to keep repeating ourselves – and I reflect on this often with a sense of chagrin – is because that’s what they do. If we stop, they win by default.

    I said to a tosser whose name I will not type into my own blog that this is not a contest. On reflection, that may not be true. Considering what may be at stake, it is not one we can afford to lose through our reluctance to sound like a broken record. You must keep going because your contributions are most valuable. We are fighting for free speech, the truth, reason and the honour of science. We will fight them on the beaches, we will…

    (Churchillian speech mode > off)

    But seriously, what better way to spend an hour here and there? In my book I said we must all do our bit (as in the Gandhi quote I overuse). This is mine.

  9. May 15, 2009 6:44 pm

    Have you seen my blog? It has to do with climate change in the context of bigger ideas such as credibility, risk management, and responsible journalism.

    You can probably just click on my name and it’ll take you there.


  10. Tracy permalink
    May 16, 2009 8:17 am

    Thanks Kate – I just read the first three articles on your site – I’ll comment later – excellent site!

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