What deniers say and the way they say it
My father used to say one of those annoying ‘adult’ things that none the less turned out to be entirely correct (OK – everybody has one moment in the sun, right?). His smug little aphorism was this: it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it.
I’ve come to think about this a lot recently. The roller-coaster ride that started with the CRU emails, then hurled us through the corkscrew of COP15, is still dashing around the track after a quick pit stop to take on some dodgy glacier melting dates, supplemented by a massive payload of denialist exaggeration about the underlying science (which remains intact even as the poles and 80% of glaciers melt). Yet while the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change hasn’t really altered, the political climate certainly has. I’ve commented elsewhere on failures at CRU and the IPCC, which I’ll recap simply by saying in both cases the behaviour of the protagonists was wholly unacceptable when, on the basis of their work and the reporting of it, we are being asked to make fundamental changes to the way we live. I don’t care how well-intentioned, how strong their conviction: in science, means can never justify ends. And perhaps in all things, come to think of it.
It is cautionary to discover that warnings about much of the recent inaccuracies and poor – even illegal – behaviour by a few scientists, was known, circulated and documented. And ignored. So I am required to consider why we didn’t pay more attention, why Pachauri and others at the IPCC indulged in their own form of denialism. (Hubris: gets you every time, doesn’t it Rajendra?) The conclusion I have reached is that while the fault lies with those advocating ACC, in terms of the circumstances, denialists have a lot to answer for. To justify this assertion, we need to consider motive.
There is a shocking amount of bilious trash written about the motives of scientists, politicians, bloggers and the lay public who side with science. I’m really not giving any space or consideration to the relentless accusations of conspiracy, fraud, vested interest and criminal behaviour since there isn’t any evidence to support such accusations (except in the case of FIO requests, where the law has been clearly bent, if not broken outright). In the realm of science, however, there is not one jot of evidence to suggest results have been deliberately falsified, twisted, modified or altered to suit any agenda, political or economic. Frankly, since science is collaborative and any published results are subject to the scrutiny and tests for repeatability that all science depends on, it is impossible to fake – and get away with it. It is, after all, science that has shown the glacier melting date to be wrong, something that no opinion could ever demonstrate. So a paraphrased version of another little truism applies: you can fool some of the scientists some of the time. Of all the professions, I’d say science is the hardest to fool for very long at all, and this is one of its great strengths. A scientist will tell you that electricity can be obtained from a beaker and a couple of palladium elements submerged in water, but when you wire it to a light bulb, it remains stubbornly dim. False science never prospers because it doesn’t work and you can’t rely on it, or make anything from it.
But assaults on motive are the stock in trade for denialists – usually followed by paranoid theories to account for conclusions they disagree with, and this is a given because, where there is collusion and deceit, there must also be a motive for such actions. There isn’t any other motive that one could attach to alleged deception of this kind except conspiracy, save one – and here we get to the heart of the matter. What happens to a profession when it is so relentlessly attacked, smeared, its purposes distorted by demagogues, its methods reviled and abused by the fearful and the reactionary? Science is under attack, and to understand what is happening we have to consider how people feel when they are maligned so ruthlessly and so consistently, and what effect this has on them and their work. If we are not prepared to ask ourselves how people feel when the public turns against them, we will understand neither the problem, its origins, nor how to fix it.
I suspect you can see where this argument leads – if you demonize people long enough, persecute them and revile their probity and motives, they are going to react. It is true that the reactions of some climate change protagonists – a very small (but important) minority, it must be said – have been inappropriate, but as in all things, we need to understand how this situation has arisen. My first line of argument reaches the logical conclusion that if you show endless disrespect, harass and malign any group of people, they will develop a bunker mentality and their actions will become defensive, secretive and covert. Like any people persecuted as a group on the basis of title, profession, religious affiliation or belief. So in this respect, deniers have only themselves to blame for the creation of a debate that has become so poisonous as to cause good men and women to feel, correctly, that they are under constant assault, and that nothing they do will ever free them to pursue science in an atmosphere of open-mindedness and freedom. Deniers insist they should be taken seriously, their voices and views should be heard, fairly and without prejudice. Fair enough, but this has to work both ways, doesn’t it?
The second strand of my enquiry takes us back to my father’s trite little trope. There has clearly been good information, worthy of investigation, originating from the sceptical camp. This has not been given the credence that it should, nor evaluated fairly – else we would have found the errors and identified the mismanaged procedures that have now been highlighted. But this is clearly a case of crying wolf. If I, or any commentator, make endless, spurious, inept, stupid or malicious attacks on science, especially in such copious quantities; if these attacks are wildly and madly diverse, ranging from ‘CO2 is a plant food’ to ‘it’s the sun’ to ‘they’re only in it for the money’ to ‘it’s all a plot to form a world government run by Marxist bankers’; if the attacks are built on the most spurious foundations of badly understood science; in all, the sum of these myriad myths, distortions, anxieties and falsehoods can have only one effect: they build a straw-man construct that can be conveniently likened to the proverbial haystack. How are we to find the needle? Mixing my metaphors even further, how can we sort any wheat out from such a vast amount of chaff?
My conclusion is, I think, rather obvious. If you want the truth, don’t demonize those who we ask to reveal it. If we want an open exchange of ideas, there’s no point in coming to the debate with a scatter-gun full of demagogic, contrarian ammo. If we want science to be open and accountable, we have to prove ourselves worthy of the task of judging the science and those who do it. While deniers indulge themselves to vent their badly inflated spleens; while they decry any and all mistakes, uncertainties, errors and inaccuracies while blithely ignoring the copious evidence for egregious errors and deliberate distortions of their own; while they claim conspiracies but ignore the clear evidence of the same from those they ally with; while they personalise matters by endlessly attacking boogie men like Gore, Hansen, Mann and Monbiot, and complain of an agenda being hijacked by environmentalists or politicians without acknowledging the pernicious alignment of some of the most scurrilous people on earth – Nick Griffin, Monckton, Cheney, Beck, Delingpole, Plimer, Palin, Limbaugh, Murdoch, Fox news, Saudia Arabia et. al. – while deniers foist on us an agenda so meretricious and deceitful, so ignorant and fearful, so filled with bigotry and hypocrisy, self-importance and venom, they must accept the responsibility for the climate of fear they have created.
In such a climate, it is no wonder we didn’t find the needle. Perhaps before the next assault, those who have created this terrible, fearful campaign might consider how much easier it would be to take them seriously if they acted with a little more probity of their own.