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Climate Change: The Marquess of Queensberry, Bomber Harris and Asymmetric Rules of Engagement.

October 3, 2010

It was a dream follow-up. After decoding the Freudenburg paper on Asymmetry of Scientific Challenge (ASC) – which concluded that bodies like the IPCC may have been led to severely underestimate the problems caused by anthropogenic climate change – I was made aware of the latest Von Storch and Bray paper A Survey of the Perspectives of Climate Scientists Concerning Climate Science and Climate Change, researching that old chestnut ‘the scientific consensus’. Their approach was a nice fit with my IPCC pieces and ASC, particularly when they say:

“…rather than a single group proclaiming the IPCC does not represent consensus, there are now two groups, one claiming the IPCC makes overestimations (a group previously labeled skeptics, deniers, etc.) and a relatively new formation of a group (many of whom have participated in the IPCC process) proclaiming that IPCC tends to underestimate some climate related phenomena”. (My emphasis)

It’s got lots of lovely graphs like this one (survey question 21):

21. How convinced are you that most of recent or near future climate change is, or will be, a result of anthropogenic causes?

This is just the kind of thing we need – proper, scientific evidence showing what climate scientists think about climate change.

Only thing is…it’s crap.

Turns out that the sampling method was hopelessly compromised. It was conducted on line, with a password-protected URL circulated to those selected (published climate change scientists etc) by email. That email was also obtained by sceptics, who circulated it via a climate contrarian mailing list urging sceptics to participate in the survey. The sample was hopelessly compromised.

If Von Storch and Bray had stuck to internet survey methodological standards (recording dates, times, and IP numbers of respondents) perhaps the data could have been rescued. As it was, I am given to understand privately, these methods were not used, the sampling standards were not adhered to – and therefore the results drawn from the data are specious.

All this has been documented by Tim Lambert on his Deltoid blog – you can also read Bray’s rather unsatisfactory response to the criticisms – along with some observations about biased reporting by the Telegraph (what a surprise!) amongst others. Indeed, one should not be surprised to find that WUWT did a little hatchet job on the survey results by cherry picking specific questions and failing to qualify subjective question terms like ‘adequate’. Nothing new there then, but odd they didn’t pick up on the failure to collect a representative sample. Anyway, I’ll let Lambert have the last word:

“While no study is perfect, this study is so imperfect as to be useless.”

The Moral Dilemma

I was keen to write this up until I found out about the flawed methodology. At that point, I backed out of my commitment because I was faced yet again with a most intractable problem, which we all know colloquially as ‘means justifying ends’. 

I’m committed to change. I’m an activist in that I write in support of those changes. My position isn’t political, it is analytical: I do not believe we can found a just and sustainable world culture based on consumerism and profit. In other words, I have an agenda; in the case of climate change I also feel a profound sense of urgency because so many storm fronts are heading this way right now; peak oil, burgeoning population, resource competition, endemic poverty, economic instability, considerable social upheaval and great unrest, terrorism and political violence – these things are happening despite climate change, which simply compounds all these problems. Not only that, but the technological marvels we so admire have also accelerated the pace of change by several orders of magnitude, so the shit now hits the fan with accelerating frequency.

What then am I prepared to do to further my agenda? Am I prepared to conceal the weaknesses in science, to disguise the shaky foundations of a paper I think probably reaches the right conclusions despite the poor methodology?

This is the asymmetric nature of climate change debate. I feel I am obliged to maintain some standard of probity, and indeed the sceptics make much of this notion, this standard to which they hold us, but from which they so often exempt themselves.  I do accept the burden of proof  however: the key difference between the two ‘sides’ of the debate is that only one side advocates mandatory change, and it is up to us to demonstrate the necessity for that change. My advocacy of science is in support of this evidence, which I believe is compelling and mandates social change very clearly.

The sceptical position encompasses many perspectives, but few of them embody social upheaval or progressive change (except for someone else). Climate change and social change are inextricably bound up in each other, like interchangeable feedbacks. For the opponents of AGW, opposition to the science or the ideology are equally interchangeable, much to the detriment of science, which cannot be evaluated in such an arbitrary and abstract milieu as political ideology.

One effect of confusing the terms of engagement is that the slippery methods of the demagogue are applied to the findings of science. It isn’t possible to debate climate change with those who view the discussion as an adjunct of adversarial politics, because they willingly employ all the sophistry common to political debate; Monckton’s methods are a fine case in point.

Where there is no attempt to separate fact from fiction; where truth can be bent to fit purpose; where means can and do justify ends – we are no longer debating, nor seeking to understand. We are at war, a battle for hearts and minds that depends on appeals to emotion and anxiety rather more than fact, rationality and knowledge. In this war, I am disadvantaged by my moral dilemma, for I refuse to arm myself with the weapons of mass distraction my opponents deploy so readily.

It’s the ‘Bomber Harris’ paradox. Harris firebombed Germany during WW2, and many have roundly condemned him for it ever since. We became like that which we despised, in order to beat them, burning entire cities and their civilian populations. The counter argument is, of course, that the means justified the ends (there’s more to this argument e.g. the effectiveness of the campaign, but the analogy is clear enough).

So I wrestle with my conscience. The most effective way to counter the contrarians is to play them at their own game, by their rules, or indeed by the lack of them. Frankly, I don’t think I can bring myself to act like that, not like the worst of them – the lynch-mob mentality, the threats, the accusations and smears, the lies and distortions.

What if we lose? What if we enjoy our view from the moral high-ground, watching as science takes a beating and mankind takes two steps backwards for ever step forward? What price victory, what nobility in defeat?  I’m getting fed up being constrained by Queensberry rules while my opponents favour the swift kick in the groin, a bit of gouging, a stab in the back and a whipping.

What price victory? If the price is my honour, I’m not sure I can afford to pay it.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2010 6:36 pm

    Roll your sleeves up Graham and try get to their groin first I’d say.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 3, 2010 7:57 pm

    It’s tempting Matt and well within range – I’m quite short as it happens… 🙂

  3. October 3, 2010 8:36 pm

    Out of interest, how does ridiculing contrarians work out in the Queensbury Rules manual? I hope you think this is acceptable as I have a plan in place to this effect.

  4. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 3, 2010 9:51 pm

    Isn’t it a bit like ‘stooping to conquer’? What would you hope to accomplish other than joining them in the mud wrestling?

  5. October 3, 2010 10:19 pm

    Maybe, probably. But, at the moment it seems to me that a small fraction of society is already mud wrestling. The majority who are not as informed as yourself needs easy references as to who to believe and who not to believe.

    If deniers can be shown to laymen as not credible then that’s one battle won.

  6. October 3, 2010 11:02 pm

    Not only that, but the technological marvels we so admire have also accelerated the pace of change by several orders of magnitude, so the shit now hits the fan with accelerating frequency.
    I thought you were going to say that the SHTF with increasing velocity and had the (momentarily) happy image of it gaining sufficient speed to pass between the blades without collision. I guess it would then hit the wall with enough force to still splatter all over the room…

  7. adelady permalink
    October 4, 2010 1:26 am

    Getting down and dirty is often the best approach for a one-off immediate win in many cases.

    But this is a long-term issue. On these you never, ever surrender the moral or intellectual high ground. You may need to turn aside and weep from time to time, but dry your eyes, straighten your shoulders and get back to it as soon as you can.

  8. mark houghton brown permalink
    October 4, 2010 10:10 am

    I liked this Graham; of course you do what you can do, what you have to do and what your principles allow. I am tempted to quote you the 11th commandment but thats not really appropriate here.
    It is an asymmetric war, and all the better for it.
    That (and the fact that we are right) is our strength.
    I can only echo the advice of @adelady and exhort you to get back on the horse…..

  9. October 4, 2010 10:16 am

    PS On the substance of the post, I’m with adelady too.

  10. The King In Yellow permalink
    October 14, 2010 7:46 pm

    I’d like to see an analysis of the denialist’s on comments boards, such as CiF. I had a minor explosion there yesterday after on eof the regular deniers simply jumped threads and continued after it’s drivel was exposed as drivel. This is all part of the asymetric war going on – they post their lies left right and centre and then come back shamelessly the next day and repeat them.

    All the best.

  11. Graham Wayne permalink*
    October 15, 2010 5:31 am

    King – I’m puzzled why the Guardian allows such blatant trolling. I’m all for free speech – my own concerns about moderation were documented here recently – but topics are now abandoned in the very first denialist post and discussion is reduced to little more than tit for tat playground nonsense – a deliberate tactic of course by those who just want to air thir disaffections and use climate change as the vehicle. It’s very disappointing and rather inconsistent of the Guardian to permit the threads to be turned into mush every day. Wish they’d get a bit more proactive about staying on topic.

    (Immediately after writing this, I found the following observation on the Guardian:

    “Political observers trying to understand the conservative backlash movement in America known as the Tea Party certainly have their work cut out for them. It’s a movement primarily composed of Medicare recipients who object to “government-run healthcare”. Its leaders claim they’re more libertarian in orientation, and yet they routinely back some of the most anti-choice politicians ever to run for such major office. One of their key leaders likes to compare himself to Martin Luther King Jr, but the issues that most reliably get Tea Partiers to hit the streets are reliably racialised to exploit their prejudiced paranoia. They are full of contradictions, often making – and then running from – position statements, and seem to be more about just being angry than listing specific grievances“.

    America’s dish detergent wars

    Just about sums up climate change too, not to mention creationism etc…

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