"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What this blog is about

For my old friend, the King of the Road, 


This blog was always intended for the choir: people who are convinced that CO2-forced climate is real, disturbed about the failure to communicate this effectively, and alarmed at the obstacles placed in the way of a reasonable response, sometimes deliberately. This is how I put it in the original header of the blog layout:
It's easy to refute all the contrarian arguments but that seems to have very little effect on how commonly they are believed. Refuted arguments seem to live on in the public imagination. To bring the public on board to a rational discussion of climate policy needs more than logical argument. So what should we actually do?
So that's the core purpose here. It's not about convincing people as such, but more about understanding why we have failed to convince people, and what we ought to do about it. I already knew
  • Some unknown number of people, including many PhDs, numbering at least in the dozens, have been paid as their professional field of concentration to argue against the scientific consensus. They pretend to be honest inquisitors but they are polemicists. You can usually spot them by their high-school-debate-club approach and their National Review vocabulary.
  • Innocent well-meaning people sometimes follow their lead, amplifying their voice.
  • Members of the scientific community are reluctant by tradition, culture, and inclination to get very good as polemicists. The professional defenders of climate science are far less equipped for the debate.
  • The longer this nonsense goes on the more serious the consequences. It no longer appears as if large scale consequences can be avoided entirely. (See Australia, Alaska, Galveston)
  • The field of play in this "debate" about things that should no longer be debated is as lopsided as ever if not worse
  • Prototypes for the opposition were developed in the tobacco industry
  • A very similar effort exists in the movement to keep evolution out of schools. 
  • People's hostility, paranoia and xenophobia have been stoked to a very dangerous level 
  • Smart people coming in to weigh the evidence sometimes get things wrong (which rarely happens with evolution or tobacco, admittedly)
  • Either we need reinforcements or we need to find a different way to play the game
The core audience of this blog is people who agree with the above. The above is considered as given in the articles.

The thing that really crystalized my thinking was this quote from David Mamet, who was writing about a completely different subject (the prospects for art in Hollywood):
"Law, politics and commerce are based on lies. That is, the premises giving rise to opposition are real, but the debate occurs not between these premises but between their proxy, substitute positions. The two parties to a legal dispute (as the opponents in an election) each select an essentially absurd position. "I did not kill my wife and Ron Goldman," "A rising tide raises all boats," "Tobacco does not cause cancer." Should one be able to support this position, such that it prevails over the nonsense of his opponent, he is awarded the decision. ...

"In these fibbing competitions, the party actually wronged, the party with an actual practicable program, or possessing an actually beneficial product, is at a severe disadvantage; he is stuck with a position he cannot abandon, and, thus, cannot engage his talents for elaboration, distraction, drama and subterfuge."

- David Mamet in "Bambi vs Godzilla: Why art loses in Hollywood", Harper's, June 2005.
In the course of the two years I've been blogging and hence thinking hard about it, I've also learned that the following impinge on the question at hand.
  • Economic theory is a core problem, greatly overvalued by powerful interests and fundamentally wrong at several points
  • Fuel depletion ("peak oil") is competing with global warming as among the technical issues most likely to cause disaster; some of the responses to both problems work together and others compete. 
  • The public is interested in the wrong questions. 
  • The academy is interested in different things, but they are also the wrong questions. 
  • The media are in a tailspin of their own and can't be bothered to help.
  • Al Gore, who ought to know better, can't seem to construct a PR organization that can cope with the facts on the ground. (Yes, I would be very happy to discuss this matter, Senator.)
  • Some people in the policy sector ask the right questions, but they tend to be distracted by economists' generalizations that are no longer valid or useful.
  • The main new positive factor currently at work is information technology and social media.
  • Oh, yeah and the drunken lemurs and rabid mole rats are out of the picture in Washington for a few years at least. That's good too, but it doesn't look anywhere near good enough. 
So these are also themes. All in pursuit of the question what "we" should do. In short, "we" is defined as people who have some understanding of the climate science consensus, especially those have been playing the global warming outreach game for a while and if not exactly losing, not winning either.

(I am interested in reaching other audiences in other places. I try to keep other audiences in mind in what I write, and I welcome their participation, but that's not who I'm trying to talk to here.)


Anonymous said...

Economic theory is a core problem, greatly overvalued by powerful interests and fundamentally wrong at several points

I think the situation is bad enough that it's hard to overstate just how true that is. It's not that economic theory is completely worthless -- it actually has extremely valuable insights to offer -- but the manner in which economic theory has been applied to evaluate the economic effects of alternative policies for dealing with climate change, has resulted in the most problematic aspects of economic theory being used to give an illusion of certainty to conclusions that cannot be justified on the basis of our limited understanding of economic systems. As much as we still don't know about climate, our understanding of climate seems rock-solid by comparison with the state of economic theory.

An excellent summary of exactly this topic is Economic Models of Climate Change: A Critique, by Stephen DeCanio, an economist at UC Santa Barbara. It's an exquisite little book that systematically demolishes the theoretical foundations of the economic models used to evaluate alternative climate policies, considers how conclusions based on those models have distorted policy debates, and then finishes with a discussion of what economics can currently usefully say on the subject.

If you're not already familiar with it, Michael, you might want to give it a look. It's especially good for those of us reading your blog who have a background in economics.

Anonymous said...

I think a key issue also is the way many people seem to react to uncertainty. Many people don't like uncertainty, and would rather have a definite answer. People are not good at facing up to the fact that something very important is something we can only be 'mostly sure' about, and that there are significant possibilities for nature to throw a curve ball and confound all the best efforts of modellers and scientists.

People then react in two ways. They deny the uncertainty and pretend that AGW is a complete 100% sure thing. They do not allow for any possibility of error in the science.

Other people realise there is an uncertainty and possibility for error, and feel like if there is one error or uncertainty in climate science, the whole thing must be wrong.

The situation is kind of like:

Climate modellers: 'There are many uncertainties and difficult things in climate models. Certain processes such as clouds and ocean currents are not fully understood, and are not modelled as well as we like. Due to all these difficulties we unfortunately cannot restrict the impact of AGW to any range narrower than about 1.5-4.5 deg C. Even then there is a small but real chance that something we haven't considered may push the result outside this range.'

Media: 'The scientists say we are all going to burn drown and get blown away by a killer hurricane at the same time'

Skeptic: 'There are many uncertainties in climate modelling such as clouds and oceans. Therefore the climate models must be wrong and we don't need to pay any attention.'

Hank Roberts said...

Peter Ward's TED video from a year ago is, finally, available.

Worse than ocean pH, and faster.


James Annan said...

Minor quibble, or maybe it's bigger than that:

"Members of the scientific community are reluctant by tradition, culture, and inclination to get very good as polemicists. The professional defenders of climate science are far less equipped for the debate."

Actually, I think many professional defenders of climate science are well equipped for the "debate" and take part with vigour (see RC, Hansen, Lovelock, Pachauri...et al).

The problem may be that the existence of the debate is the problem, irrespective of who is "winning".

The reason it may not be a minor quibble is that it would imply that "reinforcements" are not a possible solution but instead would contribute to the problem.

Sorry, I know it's not really your main point.

Michael Tobis said...

Point taken.

I am not sure the people you list have good polemical skills, though.

Ron Cram said...


Thank you for this post. Before reading it, I thought this was a science blog and not a polemical one. It is perfectly acceptable for a scientist to become an advocate for a position, but certain dangers come with it.

It is the job of a scientist to seek understanding. A polemicist has stopped trying to learn and is trying to persuade.

Let's take the example of a courtroom. Attorneys for the prosecution and defense are advocates. They are there to tell their side of the story and to keep the other side from telling their story. It is the judge's job to hear both sides. It should be obvious an advocate for a particular case would not make a good judge for that case. This is one of the problems with the guys at RC. They are polemicists and not scientists.

It is accepted fact that science changes over time. As I mentioned in an earlier thread, the peer-reviewed science has changed dramatically since 2007. You seem to be unaware of many of the papers I mentioned and there are many, many other papers I have not mentioned.

While you have a right to be a polemicist and not a scientist, you may find yourself on the wrong of science. My suggestion is you determine a number of facts which, if they come to pass, would cause you to modify your position. You have already named one - the development of a CGCM which shows a low climate sensitivity. But surely there are several more.

May I suggest one? Pielke has proposed monitoring ocean heat content over the next four years.


Michael Tobis said...

I really doubt that anything unusual has happened in the last two years.

I am perfectly willing to change my mind if it does. Admittedly I am less in the thick of things here in Austin than I was two years ago in Chicago. On the other hand, I haven't heard much change of opinion from the real leading lights of the science.

I believe rcram is much more clever about politics than about science: his link to a discussion about climate models and chaos shows a very common sort of confusion.

Based on that, I don't see why we should put much weight on rcram's evaluation of the importance of various papers, especially since rcram stresses the work of Spencer, who has consistently produced low sensitivity results over the years that have consistently been refuted.

King of the Road said...


Thank you for the explanation.

I believe that one of your best posts was here:


The discussion seems to revert back frequently to statistical analysis of various sensors, numerical models of climate, etc. I think that if the discussion could be steered back to the basic science it would leave less opportunity for people to nitpick individual statistical analyses and models.

It may be a story that has more traction - people seem to have really bought into the argument that "those scientists on the government dole can make their models say anything they want."

Even if the main battle is "won", i.e., the overwhelming majority of people are convinced that AGW is real and is a threat, another battle will be to get them to support immediate action.

It's like me when I eat a burrito and chips - I know that ultimately, this type of eating will shorten my life but THIS burrito won't make a measurable difference. Or a smoker who knows smoking, given long enough without something else doing it, will kill him. But THIS cigarette won't.

I'm flying to Alabama Sunday. If I grant that all you say is true, I know that such trips are damaging but MY trip on THIS date won't make a difference.

Anonymous said...

"I am not sure the people you list have good polemical skills, though."

You mean making forecasts to Congress (which proved innacurate, as it turned out) is not polemical? Or shoving your hand up the back of Al Gore's jacket whilst he makes a film is not polemical at one remove? Well, maybe they're not too good at it, but, boy, do they try hard!

Michael Tobis said...

David, to which "inaccurate forecast" do you refer? (Warning: Hansen canard watch is in effect!)

I agree that the people James lists try hard. I would exclude Lovelock from the consensus every but as much as Lindzen. I am not sure Pauchari fits the bill either; climate science is not his specialty nor the basis for his appointment.

For the rest, I don't know as they are all that effective. In general a scientist is not as good a polemicist as a paid advocate would be for several reasons.

Anonymous said...

Michael, good summarizing post.

//"The public is interested in the wrong questions."//

I may be the only one who appreciates the significance of this line. The questions in the lay public are still "why is it cold in my backyard?" or "is global warming happening?" or occasionally even "do humans have an effect on climate?" All of the settled issues in the scientific community are discussed mostly in the public forums and blogs, and none of the real questions receive much attention.

It has become increasingly difficult to find a real "skeptic" outside of the classical, "well all scientists are skeptical." There seems to be an inherent tendency to establish disagreement with the mainstream science and then slowly become more "sloppy" with your analysis as time progresses. As an issue becomes "two-sided" people are likely to be more receptive of arguments from "those who agree with them" on the basis of which side that argument supports, rather than the quality of the argument itself. As such, many "skeptics" are quite satisfied to hold multiple contradictory ideas such as "climate always changed wildly in the past" and "climate sensitivity is low." They'll tell you global warming is contaminated by an unreliable record, but proclaim with confidence that it is cooling. Of course, that cooling is caused by the sun increasing and cosmic ray effects. It's a big swarm of nonsense that most real scientists don't have time for.

Many well-intentioned "online skeptics" are also very confused. rcram does not seem to realize the fundamental flaws in much of the work he cites, notably from Spencer, Lindzen and company. The fact those people are still taken seriously in the wider community is proof of the openness to outside views. For many it is difficult to place individual papers such as these in the context of a much broader set of literature. This is really the purpose of authoritative reports such as NAS and IPCC which encompass far more evidence than one paper can possibly do. If papers come out to fundamentally disagree with the mainstream science, it needs to be thoroughly analyzed for quality, ability to be replicated, relevance and importance, etc.


bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

My 2 cents.

In summary, I think the global warming inactivist movement isn't really into polemics any more. It's using something simpler.

King of the Road said...

A problem with citing the IPCC is that it's a "UN Agency." Among those whom you're trying to reach, there's an inherent distrust for the UN. The conservatives play this with expertise - "it's the one world government socialists trying to find another way to control the independent United States."

As I stated in an earlier post, those who are unconvinced but not refractory may best be reached by sticking to basic science facts rather than panels, models, and statistics. Rightly or wrongly, those types of arguments elicit very little trust among those who are still open to reason.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

KotR, anyone who clings to conspiracy theories about a UN "One World Government" is by definition not "open to reason". If you seriously think otherwise, then perhaps you should adjust your idea of "reason" before dispensing any more strategic advice.

Again, the way I see it, what the inactivist movement is doing is something very simple. No polemics, no rhetorical tropes, no whatever. Right now, it's just plain old brute force.

Michael Tobis said...

Bi (Frank), King (Rob) is new in these parts. He is unlikely to know what the "inactivist movement" refers to. He just sees a debate and is trying to make sense of it.

As for who is paranoid about what, never underestimate people's (especially Americans') capacity for conspiracy theories. Remember that a majority of the people don't accept that Darwin fella. This is part of the reason that argumentation doesn't really work.

I very disagree with you about the polemics of the pros, though. Although the big lie tactic is certainly a favorite, they have other tricks up their sleeves. There's a great deal of sophistication involved in keeping this argument alive.

One of their main tricks is to constantly keep in mind that most people have no interest in or memory of the soap opera that they have created. If we respond cumulatively, we lose. They know that each discussion has no memory, and they encourage us to forget. (If you have written web code it is an analogous "stateless" transaction.)

I have an article brewing on the subject. Stay tuned.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...

"He is unlikely to know what the `inactivist movement' refers to. [...]
As for who is paranoid about what, never underestimate people's (especially Americans') capacity for conspiracy theories."

Hmm... you're right.

"Although the big lie tactic is certainly a favorite, they have other tricks up their sleeves."

I guess I'll grant that to be true too (and I await your coming blog post), though I still think that noise-making makes up the biggest part of the whole enterprise of professional climate inactivism.

Using a web code metaphor (!!!), the inactivist noise apparatus will be something like the part of the code that takes up the most running time -- fix that part, and a big chunk of the whole problem will be gone. Or something. :)

jg said...

Thank you. Your blog is a pleasant discovery. I'm impressed with how concisely your list summarizes the problem. Never underestimate the unseen effect that you and the network of climatologist bloggers have. Five years ago when presented with climate propoganda, I wouldn't necessarily know what was wrong with it. Now, you and other bloggers (e.g., realclimate, deltoid, open mind, rabbett run) "out" these propogandists faster than I hear of them. This has a trickle down effect: I'm more confident confronting the denialist polemics in the work place, in local media, and industry trade journals (and there are a lot of them). Friends who know me are more confident that I'm confident.

I think your point about people's paranoia being stoked deserves a subcategory on their fear. People have an understandable fear of both governmental regulation and taxation on the use of energy (or perhaps even fear of what a warmer world could bring). They can't acknowledge their fear, but their editorials reveal it by beginning with doubts about the science and ending with fears of regulation. Fear is the only explanation that makes sense to me why so many intelligent people I know foam at the mouth on the subject of climate change. The other is that the general public doesn't read primary scientific literature and therefore are going to need a lot of pictures if they want to understand it. I think any national policy on climate will come down to swinging that undecided vote and winning by 3 percent.

I made this comment mostly to say that I'm reading.

Thank you,
John G