Monday, August 13, 2007

Climate Change Denial and Evolution Denial: Birds of a Feather

Over at Townhall, Debra Saunders has a very revealing article about climate change. It reveals two very interesting things: the incredibly poor arguments that separate deniers from skeptics, and the eerie similarities between the mindset of global warming deniers (GWDs) and that of evolution deniers (EDs).

She begins discussing a Newsweek cover story about the cottage industry that has popped up surrounding the denial of mainstream science's overwhelming conclusion that human behavior is the primary element in recent climate changes. In short, our behavior is heating up the surface of the planet.

Now some people doubt that, which is fine. All scientific theories should be challenged by anyone who thinks they have a better one. That is the beginning of a journey for a hypothesis that, with formal expression and empirical confirmation, could end with a new scientific theory and a Nobel prize. But if one is going to challenge scientific orthodoxy, one does so with evidence, and in the scientific literature, not with rhetorical games from predisposed opinions in the political arena. Which does the following, from Ms. Saunders, sound like:

"If dissent is so rare, why do global-warming conformists feel the strong need to argue that minority views should be dismissed as nutty or venal? Why not posit that there is such a thing as honest disagreement on the science? "

This is pure poison-the-well politics from a denialist, not a scientific objection from a skeptic. If you'd like to see how scientific skeptics talk, go to CSICOP's site, which criticizes all sorts of theories. You'll never see anything there that remotely resembles the poor reasoning above.

For example, one way to show how absurd an argument is, is to consider its reverse. Consider Ms. Saunders' first sentence above, but altered (altered words in CAPS) to say this:

"If dissent is so COMMON, why do global-warming conformists feel the strong need to argue that THOSE views should be dismissed as nutty or venal?"

The problem is clear, is it not? If it's bad to dismiss a common minority opinion as nutty, it should be even more reasonable, not less as Ms. Saunders implies, to dismiss a rare minority opinion. This political strategy by the GWDs mirrors exactly the attitude of many EDs. Note here, where in a debate on Intelligent Design and Evolution, an ID supporter actually touts their incredible 7-90 minority result in a poll measuring scientist's opinions, as if it helps his cause! It's a form of homeopathic epistemology: the fewer votes you have, the more credibility you should be given.

Of course, the real issue in science is the evidence. Minority or not, whoever has the evidenciary goods gets the scientific gold. That battle is fought in scientific peer-reviewed journals, where the scientific method of falsifiable repeatable testing of hypotheses is applied by other scientists. Unfortunately for the climate-change deniers, they have lost and continue to lose that battle as more data comes in. However, no denialist of any stripe considers contrary evidence, and instead just pretends the data isn't there and makes implications about conspiracies to hide The Truth:

Why not posit that there is such a thing as honest disagreement on the science?

Does Debra seriously think scientists do not understand that there can be honest disagreement on science? What does she think they are doing all day long, merely verifying the tried and true? Scientists work on the edge of knowledge (that's sort of what they are for), so there is always debate. However, there is not honest disagreement on everything. On some issues, such as the shape of the earth, the speed of light, the idea that the universe is 6,000 years old, there is simply no honest difference of scientific opinion. There is the practically uniformity of scientific opinion, and then there are the differing opinions of ignoramuses, idiots, cranks, and liars. And again, sadly, that is where GWD is heading. Scientists had the debates, and are still having them, and the GWD side is losing.

I also note that this exact same accusation is levied by EDs. Having been crushed in the marketplace of scientific ideas, they left scientists with little choice but to recognize the EDs intransigence as crankery, unworthy of serious consideration. So of course their next move is to claim they are being denied a chair at the debating table for no reason.

Another common flaw in denialist rhetoric is pretending that science is as static as religion, where opinions from authorities of centuries past are often as relevant today as they were then. In science this is an extreme rarity, and even more so in a science as new as climatology. So that makes it intellectually inexcusable to make an argument like this:

As for the overwhelming majority of scientists believing that man is behind global warming ...a 2003 survey in which two German environmental scientists asked more than 530 climate scientists from 27 countries if they thought humans caused climate change: 56 percent answered yes, 30 percent said no.

Debra conveniently leaves out the fact that no one was claiming there was an overwhelming majority back then because the scientific dispute was still quite hot. But a lot has changed in 4 years, and anyone presuming to challenge the scientific consensus that doesn't know this is unqualified to do so, plain and simple. Take the same survey today and watch what happens.

Second, just a nit pick, but what exactly constitutes an overwhelming majority here? The figures above are practically a 2:1 ratio against the GWDs. I suspect the figure now is on the order of 10:1 if not higher. How high must the figure go before Debra will give it some credence? This is a question denialists dread to answer.

Ms. Saunders then spends a lot of time feigning shock at the notion that those opposing global warming in the media might have a biased financial backing from those who stand to lose most if Kyoto-type restrictions are implemented. The fact that the overwhelming majority of GWDs are staunch Republicans and/or vested in those industries, compared to the wide diversity of those accepting the mainstream climate science, is lost on people like Saunders. The parrallel to Intelligent Design again is eerie, as they constantly wonder why their religious motivations are called into relevancy to explain their shoddy science. The near theological uniformity of the group is suppose to be chaulked up to some bizarre coincidence or "darwinist conspiracy".

Finally, as if to set up a perfect dismount to this parrallel beam performance, Saunders ends her article with an appeal for debate:

True believers appear to be afraid of a fair fight. In March, when the audience was polled before a New York "Intelligence Squared U.S." debate, 30 percent agreed with the motion that global warming is not a crisis, 57 percent disagreed. After the debate, 46 percent agreed with the motion, while 42 per cent disagreed.

Note for a moment the delicious irony that someone as closed-minded as GWDs are would accuse the scientists of being "true believers". Projection is a standard denialist tactic as well. Would that I had a dime for every time I heard a creationist accuse scientists of being closed to new ideas, while of course he himself remained completely closed to any new ideas.

And just like the EDs, the GWDs like the idea of public debates in lieu of doing battle in the scientific journals. There are obvious reasons for this I've previously discussed, and why scientists should not condone or participate in such shams of inquiry. All debate results demonstrate is which side is better at speaking quickly and convincingly to an ignorant audience. There is a reason scientists don't settle scientific disputes that way, and why you should be skeptical of the views of someone who does.

Denialists might deny different things, but their basic modus operandi is the same, and once you know it, it is easy to spot. Whether it is evolution, global warming, the holocaust, or HIV/AIDS, it is all the same in the end, and not surprisingly, many many people occupy more than one of the above-mentioned denialist groups. There's a good reason for that, and its worth keeping in mind the next time you hear someone get into a scientists-don't-know-everything rant.


Zeno said...

Saunders also thinks that a $10,000 stipend from the American Enterprise Institute to write an anti-GW article is chump change to a scientist. (That's because most scientists are rolling in millions of dollars of research funds. Yeah, right.) Actually, it's a pretty damned good bribe for an academic.

She's pretty clueless.

ScienceAvenger said...

Yes, many people like her reveal their own biases when they assume any opinion on a subject must be bought. The idea of independent objective analysis doesn't seem to exist in their world.

Anonymous said...

Hi Scienceavenger:

I use one of Ms. Saunders articles to help my students learn the scientific method through detecting violations of it. As you know, the first rule is that you have to actually read the data you report on... In her "Don't Think Outside the College Box" of a year or so ago, she lamented the liberal bias of professors, asserted that "we're all biased" then proceeded to misrepresent the data from two articles supposedly documenting the liberal professor "problem." I wonder if I was the only person who actually read the articles in question. It seems that when she is challenged, she responds with a personal insult. So, thanks for your excellent critique of her global warming "essay." I think I will use this particular piece in the future rather than the "College Box."
P.S. She clearly does not know diddly about the scientific method.

Anonymous said...

Good article, but the connection between HIV and AIDS isn't exactly solid science, and should fall into a category where skepticism is quite legitimate. The idea that millions of people in Africa (a nation with existing high rates of various nasty diseases) suddenly had AIDS never stuck me as logical.

If a virus causes something, it shouldn't so obviously discriminate between people on different continents. Poor sanitation and drug use (in modern nations) seem much more logical explanations for AIDS than a (typically benign) retrovirus.