A Good Question

Commenter “Abraham” asked a few days ago:

What do you believe to be the cause or causes for such a large majority of active climate scientists and scientists in general to believe AGW IS settled science and that the theory does NOT have “feet of clay”?

That’s a very good question to ask a sceptic. 

Hockey Stick

Before I answer, let me clarify that it is the iconic status of the ‘hockey stick’ and other images used to “sell” global warming and by extension the inflated claim of catastrophic AGW itself that I consider to have “feet of clay”.  If anthropogenic global warming was not billed as “settled science” I’d more readily entertain it as a theory. In fact I do consider it a theory – just not as a fact.

I won’t attempt to counter the statement “a large majority of active climate scientists and scientists in general to believe AGW IS settled science”; let me simply say I don’t agree with  it – on many levels. Let me also just say that until early 2007 I too believed the Earth was in peril from increasing CO2.

If I might answer for myself first: simply, I trusted science, and I trusted scientists. I believed what I heard via the mainstream media and environmental groups; I could see the evidence in the images they showed; I read the odd editorial in Nature etc., I had no reason to disbelieve or to think that there was conflicting evidence.  It never occurred to me to question what I heard and it didn’t even occur to me that there might be many studies that did not support or even contradicted the “settled science”. I would say many scientists who believe in AGW fall into this category.

So – reasons in the first instance – trust, ignorance of alternative theories or counter-arguments for specific elements of the supporting science.

For a long while the counter arguments weren’t terribly prevalent in the media, and you had to go searching for them. However, climate science argues from a position of authority, so when as a trusting, believing scientist (or a person with scientific grounding) you encounter a contrary view,  the sceptical argument frequently is put down in some way that does seem plausible. New papers with alternative views are hotly debated, dissected and often dismissed.  For non-peer reviewed sources, doubt is cast on the credibility of the source – for example the casual mention that Steve McIntyre is a mining engineer. The “what does he know about climate?” is unsaid, but the media have got you thinking that by its very mention.  This undermining of sceptic arguments is common on pro-AGW websites and blogs, and it is quite effective for those starting to think for themselves.

So – secondary reason – lack of trust in contrary views.

Many people at that stage stop digging. I didn’t. In fact my story mirrors that recounted by Lucy Skywalker in a recent comment at WUWT.

Dr Judith Curry has recently published on her blog Climate Etc. a draft version of a presentation entitled Climate Science and the Uncertainty Monster. This is relevant to both climate scientists and scientists in general. I hope she’ll forgive my reproducing a screen capture of the most pertinent slide:

Slide 43 of Dr Judith Curry's draft MIT "Uncertainty Monster" presentation

This pretty much covers all that I had thought of and much more. Dr Curry’s slides conclude by talking about the ideology of the IPCC in needing a consensus and of her view, with which I wholeheartedly agree, that for the sake of science we should forget about a consensus and get back to debate.

Uncertainty and debate are part of science. AGW, and particularly CAGW is not science, it is politics that needs to be underpinned by a scientific consensus. In writing “a consensus view” the IPCC has produced something that is freely and enthusiastically supported by some, accepted as necessary by many, and grudgingly or not at all by others (see letters of resignation from the IPCC by Dr Chris Lansea, Dr Roger Pielke Sr). So if, between government nominations for lead authors etc. and resignations of those disagreeing with the consensus or the process, the IPCC has been somewhat self-selecting, it is possible that an increasingly supportive view is presented.

One final thought. Scientists tend to be most confident in their own area of focus. Outside of that they’ll tend to trust the judgement of other scientists, and perhaps this is where ‘groupthink’ comes in.  Unless they have the time and inclination (and few do) to look in detail across the spectrum of papers published in other areas, they will accept the view of their colleagues. If you were a scientist whose field of science had no overall consensus, but were presented with a lot of supporting evidence in other fields, what would you think?

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7 Responses to A Good Question

  1. Doug Proctor says:

    William James, the 19th century American philosopher of Pragmatism, said that when faced with a possible Truth that could be black or, equally, white, one should go with the one that he “felt” right. Later, if more evidence came in, he could change his position on the perceived Truth, but until there was a good reason to do so there was no legitimacy to taking a position he was less comfortable with. In this way he justified a belief in God even though as a student of nature he saw no direct evidence that God needed to exist.

    James would probably say that many warmists believe in CAGW for this reason – in the absence of direct, hard evidence that the CAGW theory was wrong, it was reasonable to believe it was correct. The theory sits without contradicting general other truths, it leads to new truths (or possible truths) such as explanations of species expansions or reductions, and it has “cash” value, i.e. it leads to practical, economic opportunities and is recognized as having value to other people. With the amount of money involved, the third of the triad of traits of Truths as defined by James certainly applies to Global Warming The Anthropogenic Way.

    The debate of CAGW exists because hard, inconvrovertible evidence either for and against A-warming does not exist. Despite the warmist claims, the “evidence” is the relative congruence of observations to modelled climate systems, not in the unique relationship between observations and their models. The skeptic side (on which I stand) is similar, in that non-CAGW theories have an approximately equal congruence with observation. The truth could, at this point, show up either way, or (more likely) as a combination of the two possibilities. What the warmists have that the skeptics don’t have to stiffen their backs is the moral force of preventive action.

    The Bible teaches us that money is the source of all evil; this is ingrained in our Western socieity even if we all wish to have a great deal of it (personally we’re above the evilness it is associated with, you see). We start of with the moral basis that money, i.e. economic or profit issues, are at a lower level than, say, taking care of weak people or animals.

    Back in the 1980s in Alberta something like 9 people died trying to find 4 whose plane was lost in the Rockies (and who were already dead). Clearly an uneconomic outcome when only the first, additional four had died, but not one that any writer condemmed. It was RIGHT to try, even in failure. So too with the fate of the biosphere: despite a potential outcome that the effort will be neither justified at all (no danger in this case) nor proportionately justified (far more costly than going the adaptation route) the moral value of trying to undo the wrong (man’s damage to God’s gift, the Earth) is very high. Add that to the Yes/No, Action/Inaction dilemma and you have tipped the balance to the Yes and Action side.

    The Precautionary Principle is simplly a mathematical way of saying One Should Do No Harm. Attached to the pragmatic version of finding Truth gives a researcher more than leeway into supporting CAGW, it gives him a duty to do so. The skeptic has to have a very firm belief that nature is still running the show to avoid this philosophical, if not religious imperative to keep his own sandbox clean. Geoscientists find this easier than most because their/our whole enterprise is based on a changing Earth, changes that are not just statistical (as a 0.8C rise in 100 years is) but extraordinary. They/we know that temperatures and ice volumes shift around without any clear reason, and today’s changes are hardly a blip in geological history. From the geoscientist’s stance it is more than likely that the universe is fiddling with the Earth’s temperature, not man. So pragmatism says these thinkers, at least, should be skeptics.

    I believe that intellectual pragmatism, coupled with the moral imperative, drive most warmist scientists. Beyond those reasons we have social position, career development and financial rewards that all support the warmist doing his perceived duties. The skeptic is accused of preferring profit over people, of letting the future pay for the present, of having the son burdened with the sins of the parent. There is no social, career or financial support to being an individual skeptic (Joe Romm might bristle, but few have a job like Morano, while many have a job with the IPPC/WWF). Societal values favour the warmists; it is only Westernised human that when facing a fork in the road with quasi-equal reason to take one over the other, you take the one that appears best trod and headed to the Emerald City.

  2. gallopingcamel says:

    You said:
    “If anthropogenic global warming was not billed as “settled science” I’d more readily entertain it as a theory. In fact I do consider it a theory – just not as a fact.”

    I think you are still giving AGW way too much respect. At best it is a weak hypothesis with no predictive skill. It is not “Science” if its predictions are wrong or cannot be tested at all.

    Just a quibble.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Respect has nothing to do with it. It is a theory – an explanation – a group of hypotheses. Some of these are testable, some not. Saying it is theory does not mean I believe the theory or accept the explanation to be true.

  3. Pascvaks says:

    The “Groupthink” problem is epidemic. It is not justified, but it is practiced by all too many who should know better. The AGW “problem” to me is one of blind acceptance. Sure there are other matters like greed (economic and academic) and national and global politics, etc. but “stupidity” takes center stage to me. There is no reason whatsoever to blindly accept anything in any field, be it you own or someone else’s. Why? Why do we do this? Why do scientists who should “know better” about the science of science, and the art of science, and the impact of misperception and sloth and weak assumption(s) “beleive” anything –as if it were a matter of faith, an element that has no place in science?

    There is a comparison in the history books worth mentioning. Today we are drunk on Global Warming hysteria, not too long ago we were drunk on Flat Earth hysteria and the fear that if we went too close to the edge we would fall off. While the problem is by no means new, one would think –as always– that we are so much brighter than those stupid, ignorant people of yesteryear and should not be swallowing fairy tales every time some PhD stands up and says something he dreamed up in the bathroom this morning while sipping a cup of Cappuccino.

    As stupid as most people are one would think that more and more people would notice the trend by now. I do think that the colder the climate the more enlightend we become, and the warmer it becomes the exact opposite is true. I think there’s piles of proof around, I just don’t feel like digging into it and getting my nails dirty.

    Believe another scientist? No way!

  4. John Eggert says:

    Verity:

    I must say, I’m greatly enjoying your blog. One point. Everything in science is “Theory”. The “law” of gravity is a simplification of a relativistic notion. There are very bright people who are questioning the fundementals of that relativistic notion (in particular, is the universal gravitational constant a constant?). So there is nothing profound about calling something a theory. It doesn’t speak to the relative merits of the ability of that theory to predict. Some theories are better at predicting than others, so we tend to hang on to them. Newton’s mechanics is still used, even though it is not perfect and falls apart at very high speeds or very small sizes. It is, for most purposes, good enough. Still just theories though. Nothing more and nothing less. Don’t disparage something because it is a theory. Disparage it because it cannot predict, which is the test of utility for all theories.

    • Verity Jones says:

      Hello John,
      I am not disparaging theory per se, but when theories are consistently presented as certainties (as cause) and the effects are overstated, then I would take issue with the theory. In some fields I am happy to entertain two conflicting theories of which only one can be correct.

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