"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Not Evil, Just Wrong (Mostly)

I have no trace of a doubt that sustainability issues are ethical issues. Talking about ethical issues without mention of evil is a bit like playing hockey without looking at the puck. If we believe ourselves to be discussing an ethical issue, we have no choice but to point to the behaviors we count as unethical, and why.

It is very interesting to see how my discussions of the topic so far have been misinterpreted. It's partly my fault, though. In my musings so far, I have conflated two very important and distinct but related issues.

The first is the presence of evil in the climate debate. That is the topic of this essay.

The second is the distinction between the nature of evil in science vs its nature in politics. I will return to this question later.

Let me be clear. As the movie title (incorrectly I think) claims about President-elect Gore, it is possible to be "not evil, just wrong" about issues of substance. I believe most of the people who are participating in the attacks on climate science are doing so more or less in good faith, having been led down a path of bizarrely twisted interpretations of who we climate scientists are, what we do, and how we got to where we are. The question is who has been doing the leading.

The confusion about climate science pretty much requires a complete ignorance of the tradition of Jule Charney, (in which tradition Lindzen is adept, alone among the naysayers to my knowledge) and the profound and elegant depth of its achievements. People to whom the Charney tradition is invisible perceive a vastly less sophisticated science than actually exists. It's odd; you'd think the visible improvement in weather forecasting would carry some weight, but apparently there are plenty of talking head meteorologists like John Coleman to deflect that one. (Is John Coleman evil? My God, doesn't "pompous old fool" exist in people's vocabularies anymore?)

The Charney tradition (along with the related Stommel tradition in oceanography) is the intellectual core of climatology, but it's pretty much invisible to the outside world. It just doesn't reduce to a nutshell easily. (And at least when I learned the stuff, the pedagogy was lousy to make matters even worse.) So it's easy for people to have essentially no idea that a real and rich science exists. They will put climatology on a par with, say, ecosystem dynamics or economics in "maturity".

By this I don't mean (Lou G take note) that no smart people do ecosystem dynamics or economics, but only that universally agreed organizing principles have not emerged in these fields. Climatology (or planetary physics, which might be a better name) is more closely on a par with astrophysics or physiology, where much remains to be determined and surprises may yet lurk but most of the underlying principles are known with considerable sophistication and coherence. People don't know this, so they underestimate us.

But this underestimation is not enough to account for society's present dysfunction on this matter. The underestimation of the sophistication of planetary physics does not suffice to argue for "no need to control CO2 emissions".

Consider what the evidence actually shows based on simple physics that predates Charney and Stommel. As is well-known, that evidence (based in radiative transfer and broadly confirmed in plaeoclimate observations) shows that greenhouse gases play a significant role in the energy flows through the system, so that once human perturbations on CO2 concentrations become comparable to and ultimately exceed natural CO2 concentrations, the balance would necessarily change. We also know from geological evidence that very large shifts in climate are possible in consequence of relatively small forcings. Consequently, large CO2 increases are risky. The less we stipulate that we know about the system, the less we can constrain those risks. The plausible worst case (say the 5% credibility scenario) gets more expensive the less we know. Thus the less we know, the more vigorously we ought to refrain from emissions.

Now, we also know that an enormous amount of wealth changes hands in the energy sector, which dominates the more economically active societies. Consequently, any change in the production of energy will put a huge amount of wealth at risk. So less scrupulous elements in that community will certainly be motivated to skew the conversation away from what is indicated EITHER by high confidence in planetary science or low confidence in it. Neither high confidence nor low confidence argues for business as usual. The only rational way to argue for business as usual is to argue for bias; that the science is not only inadequate but that its best estimate of the sensitivity is with great confidence far too severe.

Given the evidence that was already understood fifty years ago when planetary science was in its infancy, the only way to argue for no controls on global greenhouse gas emissions, is to claim BOTH incompetence and severe bias on the part of the science. Therefore, with such vast resources at stake, the claims of incompetence and bias were inevitable, right or wrong.

The inevitability of such claims thus arises from the social context only. It was inevitable that the people trying to investigate and/or explain the problem would be accused of dishonesty. Such accusations abound, of course. What was not inevitable was that these accusations would succeed as well as they have, though. Their success is a matter for deep concern.

This does not mean that most people who believe the accusations are unethical. Most are not. But these accusations come from somewhere. (Others have been investigating where. I'm not fond of that game, myself.) It's plain that the general confusion which surrounds any complex issue has been channeled and organized into something systematic, dangerous, and hostile to reason. It's plain that this is the result of active agency by some people with something to lose. This active agency to promote confusion and hostility is plainly unethical.

Even if the sensitivity really is zero for some magical reason that has escaped us (of course, I don't recommend betting the farm on that) we are in trouble as a consequence of the success of this program of misdirection and fearmongering. The techniques being used to undermine the communication channels between legitimate science and competent governance will be with us forever. We will forever be challenged by the malicious techniques that have been developed in this trumped-up debate. We had better develop an immune system to this sort of bullshit. If we don't, sooner or later some sort of spectacular disaster will result.

Here is a recent example. Explain to me how neither climate science nor its critics of this sort are evil. Somebody is doing something very wrong here. The world needs to figure out who that is.

For a taste of the second point, brazenly lifted from Andrew Sullivan today, here's George Washington on the distinction between Manichean and Augustinean worldviews:

"Much indeed to be regretted, party disputes are now carried to such a length, and truth is so enveloped in mist and false representation, that it is extremely difficult to know through what channel to seek it. This difficulty to one, who is of no party, and whose sole wish is to pursue with undeviating steps a path which would lead this country to respectability, wealth, and happiness, is exceedingly to be lamented. But such, for wise purposes, it is presumed, is the turbulence of human passions in party disputes, when victory more than truth is the palm contended for"

- George Washington, in a letter to Timothy Pickering, July 27, 1795.

Image of Cthulhu via Wikipedia (cc share-alike 3.0)
Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Rembrandt Peale is in the public domain.


Arthur said...

People do rationalize moral failings, of course, usually in the form of some "greater good". Among any group of people of size greater than 1 you will have a diversity of ultimate goals and differing views of where true morality lies. Our politics is full of this stuff all the time.

And when it comes to large corporations, organizations, even political parties, somehow they acquire characteristics and goals of their own that may not be personally shared by any of their human stakeholders. The humans act to mislead, to directly or indirectly cause great suffering to others, because it's their job, because that's what boosts corporate profits. It does not need one individual "evil" leader to be responsible at all; power and great wealth does this naturally all on its own.

Take Don Blankenship in West Virginia. Is he just doing the best job he can for his company, bribing judges and politicians and the police, blowing up mountains, destroying scenery and homes and jobs, and all the other stuff he's led his corporation to do?

Or Rupert Murdoch - is he just trying to make money for Fox shareholders?

The Scaife's - what is their self-justification I wonder?

Most of the little players we know so well are just trying to get the attention of the big guys behind it, I'm sure. Get a reputation, just revel in the feeling of association with powerful corporations, sell dubious books, blog ad revenue, or what have you.

Let's be clear - it is the acts themselves, and their consequences, not the motivations or self-justifications or underlying moral fiber of the individuals doing them, that are evil. Defamation and vilification of scientists is the least of it, sadly far too widespread.

Kaitlin said...

Maybe some people hate these ethical posts and go off misrepresenting them somewhere, but personally, I adore them. Keep 'em coming.

Unknown said...

Let me just say that when I bring up the moral and ethical thing when arguing for action, I get very strong pushback.

Of course it is a moral failing to soil our nest, which is why the hard, swift, and sometimes dirty pushback. And the strong, strong denial.



Michael Tobis said...

Dano, thanks for your comment.

I think it is impossible to avoid the question of evil once harsh accusations become public. If the accused are innocent then the accusers are culpable; edge cases based on pure misunderstanding are very implausible.

This doesn't mean that everyone with an opinion on the wrong side is acting in bad faith, and I beleive most of them aren't.

It's also different from confronting people with unsustainability. Colorado's may well be one of the most unsustainable cultures on earth. I'm sure people have enough trouble with that fact without being asked to take the blame.

They have acted in good faith: the white protestant nationalist Republican preacher promised them that the bounty of the world was theirs, not something stolen from their grandchildren. The preacher, who isn't particularly expected to be very good at math or science (to say the least), himself has been fooled about the bounty.

The number of people acting in genuinely bad faith, with reckless disregard for truth, is relatively small. My belief is that it is not zero, and that this matters.

But no, I wouldn't stand up in front of a wealthy audience of construction moguls, mining engineers, and retired Texan oil millionaires in an ostentatious Denver exurb and tell them they are evil. That not only won't sell. It's also not exactly true.

It may be hard for the rest of us to think of those people as victims. In a sense, though, they are, though it is likely that it's the rest of us who will pay their dues.

Fake Nick Denton said...

I'm not sure that there is anything bizarre about the climate denialists' views. They are plainly an expression of they (or their masters') economic interests. There is an extremely robust and (on a global scale) more or less invariant relationship between ghg emissions and economic productivity. Those in the most fossil fuel intense industries are plainly going to be the losers in the short term. The fact that they can't see beyond the end of their nose is as much the product of the source of the revelation (Al Gore; environmentalists) as the message (everything you thought you knew about your God-given right to pre-eminence over the earth is wrong).

In the face of such a profound and wrenching revelation – change all of your beliefs or risk ending your line on this earth - should be be surprised that denial is the response?

It is, after all, one of the phases of grief.

Unknown said...


I am not so dumb to stand up and state specific people's actions are evil. What I am saying is that it is simply enough to state a constant growth economy will ruin our nest, and it is an ethical failing to continue to ignore this issue. It is simply enough to say business as usual will mean our grandchildren will be much more likely to be impoverished and won't enjoy going to the woods like we do, it is a moral failing to continue to act in a way that endangers their freedoms. It is simply enough to say that human population growth has adverse consequences and we should figure out what to do, and not doing this doesn't help anyone in the long run. Stating these simple facts (yes, facts) in the context of moral and ethical reasons for action almost always leads to a thundering denial, anger, al that.

But it is psychological, this reaction. It is part of the human condition. Constant refrains of coming apocalypse won't break thru, either IMHO.



Unknown said...


On an intellectual level, I enjoy your forays into ethical discourse.

I happen to think you're barking up the wrong tree, characterizing the efforts of leading skeptics as "evil," but you already know that.

Still, here's something you wrote in this post that caught my eye:
"This active agency to promote confusion and hostility is plainly unethical."

Hmm, I'd say such a thing works both ways. After all, certain prominent climate advocates might be accused of promoting confusion and hostility towards others in an attempt to delegitimize them.

I only point this out because you might want to be careful about climbing up on that high horse. Climate advocates may be on the right side of history with respect to the science, but not all of them may be so pure when it comes to policy.

And arguably, that's where the focus should be, not on countering every bit of nonsense that comes out of some skeptic corner. And as I hint at here, that policy debate may be be entering a new, important phase:


Michael Tobis said...

"This active agency to promote confusion and hostility is plainly unethical."

Keith: Hmm, I'd say such a thing works both ways. After all, certain prominent climate advocates might be accused of promoting confusion and hostility towards others in an attempt to delegitimize them.

Of course it cuts both ways. But the current victory by default of the inactivist position is so spectacularly far out of line with what the evidence indicates, and the violations of decency, never mind the tenets of reasoned discourse, so egregious, that the bad guys that turn up on the other side of the fence are of no serious consequence.

Unknown said...

I submit that you're underestimating the consequence of some of the ugly tactics (character smears, guilt-by-association, ad hominem, etc) employed by prominent advocates. It effectively narrowed the policy debate.

Michael Tobis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michael Tobis said...

Keith, the above-linked article is currently at the top of Morano's page.

If you can find anything comparable in reach, dishonesty and malignancy among "advocates" please point it out. Forgive me for not holding my breath.

Michael Tobis said...

Malice. Sorry, the word was malice.

Unknown said...

And well you shouldn't hold your breath. Look, I get that there are powerful interests arrayed against climate action. Is the net damage they do to a rational debate greater than that of a few partisan climate advocates? Absolutely.

All I'm saying is that there is a policy debate that has often been characterized by willful misinformation and outright hostility too. By climate advocates.

I suppose you could argue that the outcome of that isn't as damaging as a concerted misinformation campaign by skeptics. Then again, we'll see how that cap and trade thing works out...

Dano said...

I'm good with malignant, Michael. The content in that linky is malignant. It has to me malignant or malicious to hide the lies.



Michael Tobis said...

Look, this isn't about "advocates".

I say this because of your completely off-point mention of "cap and trade", an option opposed by every single scientist I've ever heard venture an opinion about it, all of whom prefer a simple tax on net carbon into or out of the ground, but think anything is better than nothing.

At issue here is a bunch of more or less innocent scientists, maybe splitting a hair wrong once in a while this way or that. It's about a scientific subculture supported in substance by every major scientific body on earth, and subjected to what amounts to the extreme libel and defamation. "Advocates" don't enter into it.

If this isn't overreaching, if no consequences accrue to the people negligently misconstruing climate science as a power-hungry conspiracy, it's not clear what the purpose of democracy is anymore.

If you compare this to a few dozen grumpy bearded green guys who'd love to be just as mean and nasty if they could, you are just resorting to the journalist's favorite hiding place, the middle.

I don't even know if the bearded guys exist, frankly. But even if they do, what importance do they have in the face of this grotesque and successful organized lying, by major media outlets, senators, governors, CEOs and even preachers?

I know balance is your stock in trade as a J-school type, but some situations just don't balance. It's not a law of nature that bad guys are equally distributed on both sides. You actually have an ethical responsibility to pick this time, and to do it right.

Please. Get real. This matters.

guthrie said...

"All I'm saying is that there is a policy debate that has often been characterized by willful misinformation and outright hostility too. By climate advocates."
[cite required]

Unknown said...


I think your mind is pretty well made up on what represents the biggest obstacle to action on climate change: the skeptics.

They represent a convenient foil, given the lack of political action and public urgency on climate agency.

I've argued this point on my blog, here, and elsewhere. Rather than repeat myself, here's a good comment from Roger Pielke Jr. on his blog today, which makes my central point about your lack of reality:


"For a reality check, I suggest catching up on the latest climate news about Copenhagen, the US Senate and IPCC. For those interested in action on climate change, the presence of skeptics should be way down the list of concerns."

Michael Tobis said...

It's ridiculous to suggest that these unfortunate and possibly disastrous outcomes are independent of the politically motivated opposition to science. Calling that "skepticism" is insulting.

The Gates position makes sense in the sort of ponderously obvious way that Gates tends to make sense. The fact that people think it is brilliant is disturbing.

RP Jr's gloss in the comment you reference is the usual jello that I am asked to nail to the wall. I have honestly have no idea whatsoever what he is trying so urgently to tell me.

I don't know what he means by "skeptics" and I don't really know what you mean by "skeptics" but I know that my whole community is being successfully defamed by somebody. The idea that we should shrug and move on is perfectly ridiculous advice even if it's irrelevant to policy outcomes. I'm the one being defamed, see?

It's also ridiculous to suggest that the policy failures have nothing to do with the absurd allegations. If a majority of the supporters of a major party in a major country can be convinced that the whole business is made up, that will have an effect on the outcome.

Even more to the point, if it didn't have any effect on the outcome it wouldn't be happening, would it?

Please try to make some sense.

guthrie said...

Keith, your post 'the path to decarbonization' - I have trouble seeing what is so interesting about it. In Scotland the gvt has OK'd 2 large areas for offshore windfarms that should enable us to shut down a coal fired power station. There's plans aplenty out there for decarbonising the economy, from the solar century one I read about in Scientific American a few years ago to that outlined in Monbiot's "Heat". We've got more R&D going into renewables than before, and countries like Spain are forging ahead with solar power stations and wind and wave.

So excuse me for not seeing why your post is so interesting or indeed relevant. Perhaps I'm not a policy wonk and if I was it would make more sense, but its hard to see how a prescription to do more R&D and get economists on side is new, interesting or even possible.

Also Michael has posted a little heavily on denialists recently, because he's trying to get to grips with them, their mindset and so on in order to combat them better. Note that many of the posts talk about meta and philosophical issues such as ethics and the workings of the denialosphere and are not mere whack a mole posts on the denialist lie de jour.

Unknown said...


We might be talking past each other, as I thought I was making sense.

What I'm trying to say, perhaps no clear enough, is this: you overestimate the influence of skeptics.

But that's your narrative and I guess you're sticking with it.

Michael Tobis said...

I am a member of a community that is under attack.

Whether or not the attackers you insist on calling "skeptics" are successful in affecting policy is one thing. Whether they are making climate science increasingly difficult and decreasingly effective is another. On the latter point there is little room for doubt that the disruption is severe in some circles.

If we don't fight back effectively, it is also likely that the funding for the science as a whole will come under concerted attack the next time the conservative party is in ascendancy.

So even if you are right about their effectiveness in policy, and I do hope you are, it is still malign in intent and consequential for people like me.

I don't understand why you don't understand this. This is not theoretical or abstract. This is my working life and the working lives of some of the people I most admire and trust.

You want me to shrug that off?

I can't imagine that society as a whole would be behaving so stupidly on these matters had the opposition not been effective in the past. We can discuss that if you want.

But you can't convince me this doesn't matter because for me and my friends it's very very personal.

Rattus Norvegicus said...

I don't know whether this is malevolent or just incompetent. For those of you not brave enough to click on the link (it is from WUWT) he shows a beautiful image of MODIS measured anomalies (normalized to 2000-2008) which shows a cold Northern Hemisphere. A quick crosscheck with GISS showed that pretty much anything south (and I mean *anything*) of 30N was warmer than average over the same base period. North of 75N, things were downright balmy. As far as I can tell the only incompetence here is that of Mr. William Briggs, "statistics expert".

Of course you'll probably see this on Morono's site soon enough. He is truly evil.

Anna Haynes said...

Qs for MT -

> "The Charney tradition (along with the related Stommel tradition in oceanography) is the intellectual core of climatology, but it's pretty much invisible to the outside world. It just doesn't reduce to a nutshell easily."

In a nutshell, what is it?
i.e. how would you describe it, to Steve Easterbrook's kids?

To those with meteorological and nonlinear-system-dynamics hammers, climatology looks like a nail; you're saying "trust us, it isn't one".
What sort of evidence (actual or metaphorical) is available, that'd be most persuasive to these hamer-wielders and to the laymen who listen to them, that their domain knowledge doesn't apply here?

p.s. note the visceral parallel of the hammer-wielders' reaction ( their resistance to declarations that their expertise isn't relevant) with Easterbrook's response to Craven and Hayhoe books - "these books might be two examples of the same phenomenon: Effective writing that appeals more to people not steeped in climate science than it does to the true experts (plus the armchair expert wannabes, like me). I know when I read Craven's book I had a hard time dealing with his approach for at least the first third of the page count. I didn't want to hear, "That battle you're engaged in doesn't really matter, and here's why.""

Michael Tobis said...

Ah, therein hangs a tale indeed.

Two tales really.

These really are two almost opposite questions; one for the unsophisticated and one for the oversophisticated.

At the 9-year-old level all I can say is "we have lots of cool mathematics that help us understand the system, but most people don't have the time or patience to learn it, so that leaves room for them to doubt."

At the other end we have at least three camps of relatively sophisticated attackers.

Specifically MDs and such trying to inflict frequentist statistics on us, physicists and mathematicians demanding a level of precision and completeness we will never attain, and engineers demanding a level of documentation and formalism that we can't afford.

Of the three I have much greater sympathy with the engineers here than the others. It is a shame they have decided to be so rude. There really is massive room for improvement in how climate science is conducted, but the approach has been so socially dysfunctional that it's nearly impossible for climate folk to understand the real critiques. It's a pity; there is massive room for collaboration but it requires more, not less funding for the field. It's hard to imagine our more vociferous critics lining up behind that idea.

The other two groups are just using the wrong toolkits.

I think this rough outline can be greatly expanded, but that's sort of how I see it.

Anonymous said...

Mt: "Whether or not the attackers you insist on calling "skeptics" are successful in affecting policy is one thing. Whether they are making climate science increasingly difficult and decreasingly effective is another. On the latter point there is little room for doubt that the disruption is severe in some circles."

Isn't the first of these what matters most (for the future of the earth)? I've had a discussion with RP Jr where he argued that notwithstanding all the misunderstanding about climate science, a majority of the public is in favour of climate action, i.e. that contempt for science doesn’t translate 100% in (or stem from) an inactivist policy-agenda. As a scientist, I’m totally with you in frustration and anger about the defamation of science. But perhaps Keith and Roger have a point that what matters more (to the future climate at least) is the policy fight, and that the role of science in that may be smaller than we think it is (and than we think it should be).


Anonymous said...

I think you're fundamentally asking Keith Kloor to report the truth, which he is saying doesn't seem important.

It's perhaps a difference between a scientist and a postmodernist. The latter has advanced sufficiently. ;)

But seriously.

I feel great sympathy for you.

Probably encouraged by the recent anti-climatology media surge, some friends of mine have grown confident enough to express their loopy views on climate, summing up to the mechanism: "I don't have the faintest idea about concept X" that leads to "very not IPCC" [VNIPCC catchprase tm MT], applying it to practically every conceivable idea that crosses their mind.

Very Not IPCC reminds me of Edward Current's "Checkmate!".

It must be some kind of a psychological frustration, as these people have certainly proved capable of handling complex knowledge earlier. I've seen some anti-green behaviour earlier and at least then it has been at least somewhat covered under a remotely plausible "I'm the reasonable one" cover and somewhat harmless ego stroking contrarianism/eccentrism attitudes (I fall to the latter trap probably myself at times).

Now it seems the ages have darkened sufficiently that some of these grossly misfigured mental beasts can move around in daytime.

I'm reminded of German war veterans who told of plain ordinary seeming colleagues whose sadistic behaviour was exposed when it got the chance.

I don't really know how to fit all this into context. If half of americans believe in a 6000 year old earth, maybe it isn't that serious then if ordinary people believe what ever. I doubt that.

But I wonder.

Journalism mostly doesn't seem interested in the nature of the sickness. Someone needs to contact other sciences to examine it.

Of course science doesn't produce an ought from an is. You still need the other framework with all the good and evil things.