"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, April 28, 2011

What to Believe and Why

OK, forgive me, this one's a bit philosophical. It starts with why we believe what we believe, and ends with a justification for science outreach, not despite the fact that people's belief structures are stubborn, but because of it. (As usual, just a first pass.)

And it refers to a brewing argument about which "side" of the climate "debate" is most dogmatic and quasireligious. In fact, beliefs are beliefs. I claim that idea that anybody is entirely rational about anything, the idea that some of us form our models of the world entirely on evidence, is excessive. The question is how to deal with reality knowing that these biases exist.

I refer you to this argument by Prof John Stackhouse, about as intelligent a person as you can imagine being a Bible literalist; the resurrection, the loaves and fishes, the whole nine yards, if I understand correctly. I have been following him to try to get insight into how the thought process of dogmatism works, and it's presented an interesting challenge:

I think we share a lot of common ground here. We agree, for example, that one ought to have good reasons for what one believes or, at least, be able to reply adequately to challenges to that belief. We agree that if one cannot adequately defend one’s beliefs, including one’s premisses, one ought to change one’s beliefs, or premisses, or something. One shouldn’t just keep believing things that one cannot adequately defend.

But let’s stop there for a moment. Why shouldn’t I be entitled to keep believing things that I cannot adequately defend?

Suppose, for example, I believe something because I have believed it all my life and it seems to make good sense of whatever it is it is supposed to describe or explain. It seems to fit the facts. Perhaps it is, in fact, true. So when someone comes along and offers apparently strong arguments against my belief, I could certainly accede to those arguments and give up my belief. But couldn’t I also decide that, while the arguments against my belief certainly seem sound for the moment, perhaps they are not as sound as they appear? Perhaps, in fact, they are not sound at all, and I am just not sophisticated enough to see immediately why they are not sound. Indeed, since my belief has seemed to me to be true for quite a long time and over quite a number of relevant circumstances, wouldn’t it be rather reckless of me to drop a belief simply because I can’t defend it well right now? Wouldn’t such an attitude dispose me to credulity and even abuse at the hands of magicians or charlatans or con men or preachers of false doctrines?

When I think, furthermore, that lots of apparently capable people hold to that belief also, it would seem reckless indeed to drop that belief simply because I can’t defend it adequately, for perhaps some of them can. Indeed, isn’t it very likely that some of them can, since it is exceedingly unlikely that I am now encountering a brand new, devastating argument never before encountered and handled well by any of my fellow-believers? So perhaps I might ask around a bit, do some reading, get some expert counsel, before I drop my belief at the first sign of serious trouble.

That’s what a scientist ought to do. That’s what a scholar of any discipline ought to do. That’s what any rational person ought to do.

Now, if you follow the rest of his argument, you will see he takes it to a place that is (not just to an atheist or an agnostic, but to someone like me who finds value in religion but constructs a religious view on evidence rather than defending an inherited and outdated package) transparently ridiculous.

The argument, though, is not easy to dismiss.

Indeed, this is why we tend to eschew debate with denialists. It is not hard to construct a single argument that to somone unprepared for it seems logically coherent. Take the "tropospheric hot spot". Assert that all GCMs produce a feature that no observations reproduce (without noting that this isn't a complete refutation even of the predicted feature). It is best if the scientific community is not especially interested in this contradiction, so that the innocent debater has nothing in his or her arsenal to refute it. Conclude that climate models are flawed (stipulated) and allow the audience to infer that this flaw amounts to a warmING bias everywhere. (The denialists themselves seem incapable of distinguishing between a warm bias and a warming bias, as we see by their squawking about underrepresentation of "cold" (rapidly warming) polar data.) Claim that all predictions are BASED ON these "flawed", implicitly biased models. Conclude that there is nothing to worry about.

An argument like this is convincing coming from an unibased investigator. But nobody is unbiased about the climate question anymore. We want our juries ignorant of the case at hand for a reason, which is why jury trials of celebrated cases are difficult. However, everyone, regardless of background, claims to be the genuine self-questioning scientific party.

How do we react to an argument of this sort? Much as we'd like to say we are not swayed by prior beliefs, nobody is innocent in that way, on either side. We take the argument and slot it into 1) how credible other arguments we have heard are 2) our social connections to other people that we respect and 3) how coherent it is with our "priors", i.e., our pre-established beliefs.

So when I say, come on, if a deity capable of inserting itself into the womb of a virgin existed, why would it choose to spend nine months sweating in a moist sack and a dozen years suffering the indignities of childhood? Why would it not just show up from the sky, a far more impressive performance? I mean, the whole story just doesn't add up, what does the literalist Christian answer? First, that they have heard many arguments form incredulity in the past that have been unconvincing. Second, that most everyone they most love and respect believe exactly the contrary. Third, that their well-being corresponds closely to their perceived relationship to the deity in question, reinforcing their prior (and in fact, reinforcing my own interest in religion, which is ultimately about the nature of the subjective, not about the nature of the objective).

How is this different from out belief in climate science, and in particular, to its not especially subtle conclusion that we are doing a lot of damage with our current rate of greenhouse gas emissions? Presented with a challenge, we note that past challenges have all been defeated. We point to the impressive list of institutions that support the consensus (somewhat ignoring that the list is not compelling to our interlocutors). And we point to the broad coherence of evidence.

Is there some way that this set of "beliefs" really is qualitatively different from the beliefs of our opponents, or form the beliefs of religious dogmatists? Yes, there certainly is, but the answer doesn't lie in the oversimplification of Popperian refutation. As I have said before, the sensible scientific belief in the nature of our problem is not about a hypothesis, but about a set of estimates. There must be a sensitivity of the climate system to greenhouse gases. There must be an impact function from that system to dependent systems. There must be a threshhold rate of change, and a threshhold absolute change, that exceeds the cost of avoiding it, and another that is intolerable and must be avoided at all costs. What those numbers are is what we should be discussing.

But we are still left with the question of whether these estimates are based on a legitimate evidence-based framework or a constructed dogma. By becoming associated with "environmentalism", we allow ourselves to be tainted by the excesses, real or imagined, of the environmentalist movement. The denialist frame sees claims made by climate science as being of the same ilk as intuitive claims made by environmentalists in the past, some of them established as sloppy and excessive, and others attacked as such. Make no mistake, paranoid excesses of environmentalists have damaged essentially innocent economic activities in the past. So what we see as physics they see as politics, making it easy to slot into a category of doubt.

So from the deniers' frame, the position we espouse is packaged with a whole bunch of other positions (cancer from transmission lines, e.g., or autism from vaccines) that are not well-supported. Our social connections are perceived to be with dubious social elements who are perceived as superstitious and wantonly destructive. And our recommendations are grossly incoherent with their beliefs about economics.

This last, of course, is head-vise territory for us. How could your economic theory falsify an analysis in physics, chemistry and biology? But explaining why physics, chemistry and biology have to be mutually coherent and economics slave to the others is actually not all that easy, given that people really believe economics is a "science"! How often do we hear "this can't be true because..." followed by an argument from economics or politics. We dismiss these arguments out of hand. We are like the dog, these arguments are "blah, blah, blah, Ginger" to us. But we need a way to counter them.

We believe what we believe based on a whole set of inputs. Those who want us to believe things that are not true (e.g., a literalist interpretation of the English translation of the Bible, AGW denial, non-native birth of President Obama, etc.) must replace the set of inputs which we receive from the environment around us with a contrary set.

So what makes arguments from physical science different from arguments from other bases? We know that it is because of a far higher level of coherence than any other human activity has achieved. Some of our opponents know this too, but they haven't had enough experience with it to take their hard knocks.

But others, notably the engineers, get it. They understand about coherence. And they are leaders of the opposition precisely because of the importance of social connections in forming beliefs.

They just don't understand the depth of our fields, nor the social context in which it emerges. That is why, despite what journalistic professionals and people like Randy Olsen say, despite the fact that the number of people who really will roll up theior sleeves and study is small, it is crucial to present information in depth and in a cognitively accessible didactically sound way.

And speaking as someone who has taken graduate level classes in both engineering and in climate science, I assert from experience that we have a more difficult task, but also that we do it quite badly.

So that's why, for all my other disagreements with the naysayer squad, I agree that we need to make the science visible. They think they can just look in our notebooks and figure it out, though! That just shows how badly they underestimate the maturity of the field. That makes the visibility all the harder.

There is still plenty of room for climate research, but it will be quite some time before the predictive capacity of the field improves substantially. We probably have to settle for the very coarse picture of the future we already have, and make decisions based on that. The main practical role for climate science now is didactic. And no adequate institutional support exists.

To connect reason to policy discourse, reason has to be made accessible. This isn't just about openness - that's really a somewhat inadvertent insult. It's about explanation. And at any given level, at any given moment, any given explanation will carry very little weight. We have to accept that. And some people will cling to superstitions or biases. We have to accept that too. But, like the emissions themselves, science is cumulative. And it's beautiful and interesting, but it's unnecessarily obscure. The real task is to make it more visible.


manuel moe g said...

[[ Part 1 of many parts of my bloviating. ]]

When the best and brightest, out of pathetic desperation, start working on Myhrvold-like geo-engineering projects, people will finally take serious notice. The pathos will be heightened by the need for projects to reverse the ill-effects of earlier projects.

Foolishness crumbles with time, because it requires vulnerable mortal fools to sustain it.

[ I am guessing you don't wish to wait that long... ;-) ]

manuel moe g said...

[[ Part 2 of many parts of my bloviating. ]]

One of my criticisms your approach, MT, is that you work backwards in time, starting from "everything working out AOK"; working backwards until you arrive at today, and decree necessary present-day prevalent attitudes about rationality, policy, and morality for all people of good-faith - ignoring where it conflicts with our best knowledge of actually-existing human politics and economics and tendency towards selfish short-term action.

Because the friends of your forum see the invalidity of:

[1] working backwards through a chain of causality and through time, starting from "everything working out AOK"; working backwards until you arrive at "a few years out from now", and decree "necessary" magic fast&frugal technological fixes will fall into our laps "a few years out from now".

[2] working backwards through a naive chain of causality, starting from "everything working out AOK"; working backwards until you get to carbon dioxide molecules, and decree "necessary" nonesuch physical properties of carbon dioxide molecules, or some other rat-bag physics.

[3] working backwards through a paranoid model of human motivation, starting from "everything working out AOK"; working backwards until you get to the individual scientific investigator, and decree "necessary" conspiratorial dark motives and skulduggery to obtain personally lucrative grant monies.

manuel moe g said...

[[ Part 3 of many parts of my bloviating. ]]

When I put the arguments in parallel form, the similar weakness is clear.

[ Indulge me, for this argument, to put your position, MT, in a very shaky simple form. I realize your position is not this simple, and I realize you are actually investigating several lines of thought at any given time, as you should, for a problem of this magnitude. ]

So your post is addressing people of open-minded rationality in need of a sound convincing argument - but those people don't exist in any numbers. So you forcefully recruit people, by fiat, into this group, ignoring their bad-faith actions that immediately disqualify them. [ I dare not speak their names. ;-) ]

[ Again, this is a caricature of what I see your actual position as being, for the purposes of discussion. ]

I don't think you have ever directly addressed this particular point. What is at stake is fruitless dissipation of energy that would be better spent increasing the working facts for people already convinced by the multiple converging lines of evidence already available.

I would be grateful to hear and consider your reasons why this argument is fallacious or unfair, or your reasons why this is not actually a fruitless dissipation of energy.

[ This windbag rests. ]

Arthur said...

+1 for MT (I have nothing to add!)

Alastair said...

You started your post with an interesting question, one that I cannot answer, "How do we persuade people to accept the science?" but end with the same old answer "We must explain it better." But that will not work if they have decided that they are right :-(

We, you, them cannot know everything, therefore we have to take a lot on trust. For instance that the birth certificate is not a forgery, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that quantitative easing is the way out of an economic hole.
Practically every thing we do is based on trust. The difference between them and you is that they trust their religious leaders and you trust your fellow scientists.

The sceptic movement sprang from the tobacco industry trying to discredit the science linking smoking to lung cancer. It has its foundation in distrust of scientists.

There is no point in arguing with the sceptics. That only makes them seem credible. What is required is that they are made to look foolish, and liars. That is not too difficult a task is it?

Paul Baer said...

Another very insightful essay. Having been spending a while at Climate Etc. recently, engaging with people who obviously disagree with me to various extents, these questions are very salient, and the direction of potential response is attractive. Also helpful to have strong challenges put in the responses.

I think what's critical is this: the number of people of "open-minded rationality in need of a sound convincing argument", while it may be small, is actually in absolute numbers large and influential. It is definitely NOT the few, uh, thousand? staunch denialists who post in the echo chamber of climate blogs. And for those (non-blogosphere) people, the question of who they trust does not automatically mean that they will trust Anthony Watts over the National Academy of Science. Here's where an actual case can be helpful.

Michael Tobis said...

Paul, someone may believe Senator Inhofe or the CEI, who in turn may believe Anthony Watts. Many people will take the CEI or Cato over the WMO or the AGU.

More fools they, you may answer, but what of it? They still get to vote.

Michael Tobis said...

Moe, your part II is very interesting. Indeed I am always working backward; that is how you plan successful projects after all. And the hollowness of the puruit comes from its leaders being politicians, who think in terms of a sequence of narrow victories, not in terms of a sea change in the public's approach to governance.

The activists at least want the sea change, but many of them don't have much of a clue as to what it would look like.

Between the failure of Kyoto, the fizzle in Copenhagen, CRU hacking the Fukushima disaster, and the Tea Party, things are looking singularly unpromising at this point.

I can't say I'm an optimist. But the only solution is to act as if there were hope. If we concede hope then there is nothing left but quiet dignity, as the film What A Way To Go (the documentary, not the comedy) suggests. Which strikes me as, well, boring. A bit of hope keeps me engaged.

But to your point III, very few people are consciously acting in bad faith. Many are too stubborn to convince. But you know, time is on our side in a nasty sort of way. I imagine we won a few converts in Alabama this week.

My point is that it is rare to convince someone by a Popperian argument. You can nevertheless occasionally convince people who have some background in reality-constrained complexity that you know what you are talking about, even if they originally suspected you did not.

There are risks, because even the well-intentioned naysayers have developed bad habits of argumentation, (as have some of the well-intentioned realists, to be sure.)

Other than giving Willard a referee's whistle, it's hard to know when to engage and when not to. But "never at all" just reinforces their claim that we are "arguing from authority" to the exclusion of solid evidence.

Many of them don't understand how strapped we are for money and talent, of course, after all the talk of billions of dollars and lining our pockets and such. This feeds their suspicions. Surely a two billion dollar enterprise would have a few million for PR in the private sector! So a lack of a mental model of the academic world reinforces these suspicions.

We have to try to address them, on the principle that hope is better than no hope. And we don't do that
by being rude or dismissive, Mosher claiming to be my best buddy being a sort of extraordinary exception.

Committee for Green Foothills said...

"Make no mistake, paranoid excesses of environmentalists have damaged essentially innocent economic activities in the past."

Might want to back that up with some evidence. I can't think of much outside of food additives and possibly worker safety (both of which are also under-regulated in some respects and only tangentially environmentalist).

GMOs, I suppose. It's a thin list.

Michael Tobis said...

My neighborhood in Madison had it in for a local manufacturer on the basis of essentially zero evidence. The manufacturer was an excellent employer and a contributor to the neighborhood. But the neighborhood of turn-of-the-century houses became attractive to lefties and they became hostile to it. They accused it of this, and that. The state repeatedly came out and cleared them.

The locals became paranoid of the state. They started talking about dioxins for no reason. I spoke up in defense of giving the company room to make their case and was to a real extent ostracized by the local community for my lack of solidarity in publicly stating that their evidence looked awfully flimsy to me.

My sense is that this happens a lot on the local scale. And it's not much different from the paranoia we climate scientists experience. There really is no convincing people if they decide not to trust you.

It was a repulsive experience. It upset me nearly as much as climategate did. And it convinced me that there is plenty of blame to go around both sides for the present polarization in America.

Clues here and here.

Again, this was a responsible, community-oriented company working hard to keep good-paying manufacturing jobs in the midwest; the factory had been sited before the houses in the neighborhood were built, and the influx of us granola types was recent. Had the company been as irresponsible as is usually claimed, the neighborhood would have been blighted and the upper-middle-class lefties who hate actually making things would never have showed up.

It is truly a delightful neighborhood. I miss walking to Lake Monona, various bars and restaurants, and a world-class music venue. I miss the great bicycling opportunities. And I miss my friends. But the politics of the neighborhood and the persecution of what I still take to be a closely held company of unusually high ethical standards left a very sour taste for me.

If the Kipp family doesn't "believe in" "global warming" it would not surprise me in the least.

And this story is why when people call me an "environmentalist" I explicitly deny it.

Finally, in case this blow up here, let me state that I am not saying that Kipp is innocent of anything and everything ever. I have no evidence either way. Perhaps something has come out since I left in '04.

I am saying that the neighborhood association was proceeding on a presumption of guilt, a hostility to private enterprise, and a belligerent willful ignorance that reminds me of denialists of other stripes.

Anna Haynes said...

> "despite the fact that the number of people who really will roll up their sleeves and study is small, it is crucial to present..."

And it's not enough to just provide info; you need to give assessment tests, to show 'em where they're weak.

It's the weatherman problem - those atop a local pinnacle of expertise need the feedback when they've misunderstood stuff, or else they'll slip into alpha male mode & be unable to absorb anything - and be oblivious to this.

No Weatherman Left Behind...

Anna Haynes said...

So (responding to MT's post), a Khan Academy, plus tests for comprehension, for climate science and "how to be an informed citizen about science" heuristics?
(giving the rationale for why they work)

Here's another "test case" data point: smart people exist whose credibility spectrum is 100% inverted from Kate's, and who appear 100% sure theirs is correct.

(Justifications provided: Groups produce groupthink, and outsiders can see things that insiders overlook...)

Communicators who form their views based on stories (instead of just communicating that way) will have epistemological failure modes whereever statistical thought is required.

Andy S said...

"Make no mistake, paranoid excesses of environmentalists have damaged essentially innocent economic activities in the past."

Fear of electromagnetic radiation from cell phones is an example. In my community, there was a big fight over the installation a mobile phone transmitter. A friend who spoke up at a public meting about the lack of peer-reviewed evidence of health risks was shouted down and later received death threats. Now, the same activists are fighting the installation of smart, electric meters, which connect wirelessly. We need smart meters as part of any climate change mitigation strategy.

I have witnessed a couple of instances where prominent green activists have been strongly criticized for not making cell phone radiation elimination their top priority.

Anna Haynes said...

(I'd like to plead recent frustration & insufficient sleep for my 1st comment above, which is rather dismissive, contrary to the excellent advice of MT; MT, feel free to make it disappear)

also, you might want to spelchek.

manuel moe g said...

MT: "But to your point III, very few people are consciously acting in bad faith."

Unfortunately, there are not many ethical techniques of persuasion that work on those who are plainly exhibiting effective bad faith, but unintentionally. But I understand your point: those unintentionally in the grips of un-helpful un-rational thought processes deserve the benefit of the doubt.

The totality of your post plus your answers in the comment thread make a very compelling argument to both the pessimist, and to the true skeptic. This is interesting. I am not aware of argumentation styles where the argument is strengthened by appealing to wildly different audiences at the same time.

Maybe because it grounds the necessary over-indulgence of the unreasonable skeptic with the acknowledgement of the dire factual likely consequences -- and also grounds the nihilism of the pessimist with the hope that some people will be brought over to the side of reason, possibly triggering a tipping point.

Cheers! Great writing as usual.

Michael Tobis said...

Anna, you can trash them yourself if you regret them. That's one of the purposes of having an ID on the site.

But really, if I didn't say anything I wasn't totally sure of, you all wouldn't have much to look at here.

David B. Benson said...

Hear now this, O foolish people, and without understanding; which have eyes, and see not; which have ears, and hear not:

Tom C said...

Wow Tobis - you have taken graduate level courses in both engineering and climate science. You are obviously credentialed to expound in grandiose terms on religion, economics, public policy, etc. Let's leave the miracles aside for a moment; one insight from many religions that you might profit from is the realization that humility is the beginning of wisdom.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom C, first of all, I have always been interested in whole systems, and I think our present situation calls for more in the way of whole systems thinking. Second, there is a sort of humility in my position.

I suppose there's some arrogance here nonetheless. But if some people find it interesting, that is my measure of it having been worth the effort.

Is it your position, to the contrary, that each of us is constrained to think only about our points of expertise? And that those of us with no graduate training in anything should think, therefore, about nothing at all?

Perhaps we need to ask a trained political scientist, then, what we should do about democracy. I prefer not to have a population which is told that it is arrogant to think making important decisions.

Anonymous said...

MT, unfortunately it seems you're lukewarm about involving yourself in anything.

You talk about making the science "more visible", yet you've been perfectly willing to obscure that very science in a cloud of niceties in an effort to 'reach out' to people.

You talk about wanting to be an inclusive as possible, yet you keep pushing away people merely for being 'environmentalists' or 'progressives'.

So my question is, make up your mind, what do you really want?

That's all from me. Like Steve Bloom, I'm not sure I find any value in my continued participation in this blog, since you'll just be summarizing my words as 'oh noes, Frank disagrees with me; bad Frank'.

-- frank

Michael Tobis said...

Inclusion includes me. I am interested in being able to say what I think without it being pigeonholed. I would like to be included in the conversation without declaring allegiance to anybody. At least on my own blog, if nowhere else!

Politics is for achieving goals. Conversation is for establishing them. I am interested in conversation. I don't think we have any clear idea what to do yet, and I mean specifically those of us who accept that there is a crisis.

I begin to understand the pressures toward journalistic false balance. A critical eye toward oneself and one's allies is the most important tool in the scientist's toolbox.

There's a tension between solidarity and rigor. Unfortunately the pragmatist has no set rules for addressing it. So what I do may seem inconsistent to you. To me it is exploratory.

Although I am taken for an extreme greenie in some circles, that is quite wrong. I did not actually dedicate my life to defending Madison Kipp the way I care about global sustainability issues, but I was horrified by the whole green scene and learned where the contempt and anger toward environmentalists comes from during that episode.

The questions then, are whether I should forget that episode, and whether I should talk about it. My decision is that it is an important insight into the people who oppose me to have an occasion wherein I agree with them. I didn't WANT to agree with them. I didn't WANT to be persona non grata at the Harmony Bar. It just turned out that way.

Ultimately what I want is what Jefferson wanted: a competent, engaged democracy that solves problems and advances civilization.

Juggling what to say and what not to say in that pursuit is hard. We don't really have good rules of thumb to revive real conversation. We have very good methods for destroying it.

Divisiveness and malice plays out in both directions; I speak not from the journalistic teeter-totter but from personal experience at being mistreated by greens as much as by libertarians.

What am I to do with this experience? It is certainly relevant to the topics that interest me most; after all that is how I managed to get in the position of being a figure of blame on opposite sides of the spectrum.

If that offends you, I am sorry; I concede that partisanship is necessary in the end. If it offends you enough to make you stop paying attention, though, you clearly are being part of the problem.

EliRabett said...

You can believe any damn thing you want, but if you attempt to convince others of it you better have good arguments.

Tom said...

Michael, don't stray too far off the reservation. You're being warned by your regulars and they will brook very little in the way of variation from the theme.

As per your and Stackhouse's actual points, another guy that gets laughed at by the pure and the good is Robert A. Heinlein. In addition to many other good and pithy observations he noted that man is far more a rationalizing animal than a rational one.

How tough is it to really say that we feel an emotional connection to a concept, person, ideal and then rush to find reasons to validate that connection?

I'm afraid of death. I respond sympathetically to a structured argument that there is survival of ego after death in pleasant circumstances. So I begin to use my brain to justify that response.

We can sit and argue that that is not how we should arrive at belief sets, but we've been doing it this way for quite a while. Other than the odd Inquisition or Holocaust, there are those who argue that this method of 'thinking' has brought us to where we are today and shouldn't be messed with overmuch.

When I'm not hungry, angry, lonely or tired and when I'm not getting yelled at for disagreeing with others, I can see that a better way exists and I can occasionally profit from using that better way.

But I have lapsed into the automatic mode of reaction and belief formation too frequently to think I am a higher creature.

Be careful, Tobis. I get the feeling you're being watched by the Board of Correct Beliefs.

Michael Tobis said...

Tom, I realize you have trouble understanding this, but our political beliefs are similar. Where we disagree is on actual facts.

I am neither enforcer nor enforced. Somebody has to tell the actual truth in this situation.

Tom said...

Michael, some of our attitudes and outlook upon life are indeed similar. I actually think I realized that long before you did, and said so several times when I had a venue of my own.

Where we differ is obviously on what we believe has been shown to be true. We both agree that global warming is real and needs to be addressed starting today. I would venture to guess that we both agree on the utility of mechanisms such as carbon tax and technology transfer to developing nations.

I do not believe that emitting CO2 is equivalent to mugging old ladies. I don't believe that demonizing the opposition helps us move forward--and that's true for people ranging from James Hansen and Andrew Revkin to Judith Curry and Steve McIntyre, from Roger Pielke pere et fils to Bart Verheggen (who's the only guy in this game who never gets demonized... hmm.)

Michael Tobis said...

You do not understand that the right target for CO2 emissions is zero. Most of the rest follows.

Perhaps more to the point, you also don't seem to understand that mugging scientists isn't any better than mugging little old ladies. Which is why we can't do better than a truce.

Tom said...

You do not understand that insisting on something that is physically impossible and equating failure to achieve it with criminal behaviour means that you are making it impossible for the world to achieve goals that we share.

Nor do you realize that calling misbehaving scientists to account is not mugging them. As for attempts to mug scientists, I was the one who publicly defended Mann from Cuccinelli, not you.

So I don't want a truce.

Michael Tobis said...

If I amend my above to "the right target for net emissions is zero" as I usually take care to do, would you still use the word "physically" to describe the impossibility you perceive?

Tom said...

In this century, yes, it is manifestly impossible. For the next century I believe it will be child's play and our grandchildren will wonder what the fuss was about.

Tom said...

Micheal, you're an engineer, right? Next time you need cheering up, head over to the enemy camp and look at Bishop Hill's post on Justin the Robot. You will immediately understand the level of progress and innovation shown in that video.

Imagine that level of innovation happening (as it is) in things ranging from solar power (both modules and balance of systems), energy storage and even the use of ceramics as superconductors for energy distribution systems.

And then cheer up. Technology doesn't fix everything, and leaves large and very important areas of life completely untouched. But the gentle folk of 2111 will look at us as rather primitive. And I definitely do not mean in the same way we look at people from 1911. They will look at us as we view people from before the Renaissance.

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

It's quite silly to believe that engineers can achieve things that engineers don't beleive engineers can achieve. Further, what engineers can achieve requires a world which supports their needs.

Science and engineering may yet achieve great things. But they don't achieve great things as expected or on demand.

We have iPhones, which are absolutely amazing, but we don't have space travel; we don't have exploitation of the moon and the asteroids.

Checking my watch, it's almost half past 2011. Where are the moon bases, again?

Look, I hope there's some energy breakthrough, but I can't see betting on it. Energy is a different beast from the sorts of fine precision and control that we are achieving.

That is exactly why we don't have moon bases, actually. It remains ridiculously expensive to get up there.

Tom said...

Michael, did you look at that video? You can see hundreds of innovations in what that robot does, both hardware and software.

Obviously you can go broke predicting specific innovations, but when you look at the wave you don't really care what each molecule is doing.

And we really should have bases on the Moon, not to mention O'Neill colonies at each of the LaGrange points. It sure as heck wasn't technology that prevented it.

steven said...


"You can believe any damn thing you want, but if you attempt to convince others of it you better have good arguments."

Precisely. and if the person you are trying to convince makes a reasonable and legal demand, like show me your work, then refusing to comply might defeat the argument you are trying to make. And if you argue that your work is open and transparent, when it's factually not, then that too is a self defeater.

Andrew Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Adams said...


Maybe so, OTOH if instead of engaging with your arguments the person you are trying to convince just keeps pointing out that someone somewhere else once refused to comply with such a request you might conclude that they are not interested in a serious discussion on the subject in hand.

Michael Tobis said...

Yes, Andrew.

We've heard it all before, and if we don't want to support the Stalinist technique of forced denunciations of our neighbors, if we don;t want science turned into hyperpersonalized politics, and if we find the whole line of approach a handy way of derailing just about any conversation, that may explain our lack of interest.

There is little enough in the way of serious discussion to be had in that direction and it's been hashed out far more than it deserves.

For those who came in late, no, not everything revealed in the CRU emails was best practices. But nothing therein shows anything in the way of cherry-picking or of abuse of the peer review process, which in fact are accusations far more appropriately directed at our opponents. And nothing therein rises to the level of scandal that justified the violation of privacy.

The real scandal is that the most of the expressed outrage in this event is directed towards its victims rather than its perpetrators.

Perhaps you disagree. We can acknowledge that this is an unbridgeable gap and move on, or we can go round endlessly in circles.

The trouble is, those who are opposed to actually coming to grips with the substantive problems revealed by climate science are thrilled by the prospect of going round in circles.

Which brings us back to paranoid theories and unhinged beliefs in hopelessly implausible conspiracies, which is the topic at hand. Where do these beliefs come from?

Qui bono?

andrew adams said...


I think it is an unbridgeable gap and there is nothing to be gained in arguing the toss any more.
I can think of discussions I've had on completely unrelated topics where I've been expected to "condemn" certain people's actions in order to somehow prove my good faith - I refused to play that game then (even when said actions deserved condemnation) and I'm not going to play it now in order to feed the contrarians' sense of entitlement.

As for your final question, I think people generally believe such things either because it fits in with their wider world view or because it makes them feel good to be part of a "club" - part of a small band of people who know the "real truth".