Persuasion or obfuscation in the climate change debate: who’s kidding who?
From time to time a denier will creep in to this blog and spray graffitti over a thread. After some soul-searching, I formed a policy of non-tolerance (they would say ‘intolerance’) and mostly erase the graffitti. But yesterday, a poster I know mainly from his BTL Guardian posts decided to make a few pithy remarks about my post on conservatives and their relationship to ecology and climate change. I responded to his comments, despairing of them, but afterwards I puzzled at his text because there was something more I could not quite identify, something implicit rather that stated.
I find I’m writing more about cliches these days. I’ve been writing about climate change for so long, the repetition gets really wearing – the deniers trot out the same weary stuff month in, month out. (The truth of this statement is made evident by John Cook’s Skepticalscience site, where the denialist arguments are numbered, catalogued and debunked – not that the latter will ever stop a denier from using them).
For the followers of science, things are very different. Every week there are new developments, new findings, old ones revisited and sometimes revised – all of which give energy and traction to the science of climate change, for it is the sheer aggregate of science that is most compelling for those who consider evidence to outweigh personal preference. While it is perfectly true that AGW, being an inferential theory like evolution, cannot be proved – where proof depends on the kind of mathematical rigour and architecture of classical physics or chemistry, which validates itself – it is also the case that half a century of direct investigation has produced only science which points towards mankind being the agent sabotaging our environment. There is no science pointing in any other direction.
What there is, of course, is a growing body of evidence that many vested interests have sought to pervert the findings of science, to distort it, fabricate evidence against it, smear and defame decent men and women doing their jobs, and employ all manner of sophistry, obfuscation and demagoguery to manipulate public opinion. In the case of some – Plimer and Monckton spring immediately to mind – there is considerable money to be made from books and the lecture circuit, not that I’m suggesting this might be a reason for them to pander to the masses and their fears. (Those who would claim this perversion of the public discourse is a fiction, or greatly exaggerated, need to take this issue up with Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, preferably after reading their shocking book Merchants of Doubt, a savage indictment of big business propaganda, and which SkepticalScience sums up economically here).
So, clichés rule the day in denier-land. Why is that? The obvious answer is that they have no science, but there’s a less obvious point here too: how can you win an argument for which you have no evidence? That depends on how you define a ‘win’.
The litany of clichés dragged out routinely by deniers owes its origins more to purpose than function. These are not offered by way of argument, because their proponents do not expect anyone who understands the subject to be taken in by them. Certainly, there is no scientist working in the associated disciplines of climate science who is going to be fooled by puerile accusations of collusion to secure funding, or political conspiracy, let alone the kind of duff science that gets dragged out from time to time. This latter strategy – arguing with the science – is something of a rarity, because they have discovered it is much more effective to attack the messenger and leave the message to rot: it doesn’t matter what the message says if nobody listens to the messenger. A win for deniers is not an act of persuasion; it is the successful fostering of distrust.
This was one of the things that struck me about the denunciatory post made here, the way it was full of moral reproach and sanctimony. It does not seek to persuade, and makes no attempt to present an argument. Instead, it is hectoring and self-righteous, its purpose to tell me how wrong I am, how misguided, how my actions and observations are ill-judged. It’s all very certain, and that’s the real problem – both morally, and logically – but more on that momentarily. Essentially, the poster demands that I distrust my own intelligence, disown the rationality and research that has gone into this subject over a decade – and specifically it ignores the scientific evidence, for this is the ground on which my argument is strongest.
And he suggests, by inference, that others should distrust me, by attaching motive where none exists, by alluding to errors where none can be demonstrated, by calling into question my motives and beliefs. An attack on the messenger, then; not a single attempt to address issues I raised in my first post, and certainly no attempt at discussion between equals, merely a litany of condemnation from someone very certain of their superior position, and of the judgments that emanate from it. It is also curious that his post is so topic-ambivalent; I could stick it at the end of any other thread in this blog and there would be only a single sentence that might need revision. General purpose, re-usable denialism: economic, a sort of labour-saving device if you like.
Of course, the same could be said of me in my denunciation of denialism, but only if we ignore these crucial differences: the deceitful methods used by many deniers in advocacy of their position, the vested interests known and proven to be fuelling dissent by exploiting scientific illiteracy and fostering vague but potent anxiety, and the complete lack of science to support their case. And one other thing; deniers are relentlessly backing their own, self-important opinions – which they state all the time as fact. I’m just relaying what science says, and defending it against misrepresentation. My opinions count for nothing in this debate, and I have nothing to lose if I’m wrong except a bleak future caused by climate change. If the theory of AGW is wrong, then the scientists are responsible; as the messenger, I share no culpability. The opposite is true of deniers: opinions are all they have, and any loss in this debate is personal, for the error will be theirs, and theirs alone.
Which leads, perhaps circuitously, to certainty. A key argument in the denialist canon is that the science isn’t settled. Of course, this is just another cliché they trot out, because although a handful of foolish people over a decade have said as much, there is no scientist alive who would really subscribe to the notion. The political utility of the phrase, such as it is, relates to overwhelming probability of AGW – the oft-disputed consensus on climate change and the causes of it. But fair enough, the science is indeed unsettled, and will remain that way.
I don’t have a problem with admitting the bleeding obvious, but deniers appear to have some issues with observing their own strictures. If the science isn’t settled, what I want to know is this: how is it that so many deniers, like my example poster here, are so remarkably certain? Seriously – there is no glimmer of doubt, no equivocation, no hint of probabilities. These people know for sure that AGW is wrong. They know that all the science that supports the theory is wrong – all of it! They know the rational constructs on which climate change theory are, in fact, irrational. They know that governments and bankers and all manner of creeps are in on the act, all lining their pockets. They know that the IPCC is a sham, the UN is a front for communism, and that everything will be fine if we just carry on as usual.
And so I end with the following questions, which I believe points up an essential flaw in the deniers entire position, considering that the science is not, as we all agree, anywhere near settled. My questions are these; how on earth can you be so certain of something about which the last thing any of us can be is certain? How can you be so sure of something you’ve tried so hard to discredit by the very means of fostering uncertainty. If we accept the science is uncertain, then it is so for all of us. Without scientific proof that mankind is not causing the problem, you have nothing at all.
If anthropogenic climate change cannot be proved by science, neither can it be disproved. In such a case, certainty can only be built on a foundation of belief alone. This kind of belief is usually referred to as a faith, and certainty in the righteousness in one’s faith is a common precursor to every vile and inhuman act recorded in history, because blind faith and bigotry walk hand in hand. Science provides us with an evidential basis for action; faith provides none, and the faithful seem so often to advocate exactly that: to do nothing.