Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Testing and Retesting

Planet Gore's Drew Thornley is irked with "Harvard’s John Holdren" for arguing that the global warming debate is over, and for not showing quite the proper respect to "those who question the inevitably catastrophic effects of anthropogenic global warming."

Holdren criticizes “skeptics” for their lack of scientific proof and lack of scientific credentials, yet he offers not an ounce of scientific proof for his own position.
Perhaps that's because this is an opinion piece about skeptics and their tactics, rather than a primer on climatology? Seems like a good working hypothesis to me.

Thornley complains that Holdren — who's the director of Woods Hole Research Center, for whatever that's worth — namedrops a gaggle of scientific bodies that accept AGW, but his counterargument is even more skeletal: he simply says that "much has been written on PG and elsewhere about the growing numbers who question AGW theory."

It's not clear to me why Holdren isn't allowed to prop up his claim of consensus with evidence of that consensus, while Thornley can essentially say "go fish!" to his own readers.

To be fair, this may be because I don't understand the difference between the "politicians and professors" who foolishly accept AGW, and the "scientists" and "policymakers" who wisely reject it.
Well, I guess that settles it. Science is not advanced or settled by the testing and retesting of hypotheses but rather by how many politicians and professors join in your theory.
It looks as though Thornley is implying that the theory in question has not been tested and retested. If so, I'm sure that "much has been written on PG and elsewhere" to justify this claim.
Holdren’s piece is in step with the repeated assertions that “the debate is over,” that a “scientific consensus” has been reached
So those scientists who claim that a scientific consensus has been reached agree that a scientific consensus has been reached. Shocking proof of collusion! If they were honest, they'd admit that their knowledge is atomized and incomprehensible, and refrain from advancing any theory that couldn't be confirmed by a close reading of Atlas Shrugged.

You'll never guess what all this talk of "consensus" proves:
Holdren’s piece is just another example of why we need a real climate debate.
And how will we know when we've had a real climate debate, after the last two decades of languid dilettantism? When AGW stands revealed as a neo-Marxist fraud, natch! Or, failing that, once action has been staved off long enough that it's no longer feasible.

Personally, I find it kind of compelling that AGW is widely accepted despite the fact that it's neither reassuring, nor anticipated in The Road to Serfdom, nor useful as an incentive for thoughtless hyperconsumption.

But of course that's sentiment talking, not intellect.

(Illustration at top by Martin Sharman, via Carbon Planet.)


Swampcracker said...

But of course that's sentiment talking, not intellect.

Lets look at the AGW debate perhaps from the perspective of an advertising jingle. There is that catchy melody played endlessly on the telly over months and years that repeat continuously inside our heads. Perhaps we never purchased the product, even hated the product, or the product has long since disappeared, but that catchy tune is forever there. “Its not how long you make it, its how you make it long.” Once firmly imprinted, it is difficult to reshape public opinion.

Or perhaps we can look at this phenomenon from the perspective of a psychotherapist whose client engages in reckless behaviors and understand the consequences in rational terms but cannot make the emotional break. A chain smoker, for instance, who understands the risks as she/he reaches for another cigarette. Even when understood in intellectual terms, it is hard to change behaviors.

For those of us who study AGW, the data are compelling, but how do we convince those who don’t study graphs and maps, who listen only to long imprinted jungles?

And then there are the lobbyists trying to protect their dirty little franchises. They look, not at the data points clustered around a trend line, but at the statistical outliers and base their arguments on exceptions, the confounding dodge and feint.

This is what makes public education and outreach a daunting task, and I think we need to understand these quirks of human nature if we are to have any impact on this debate.

Phila said...

For those of us who study AGW, the data are compelling, but how do we convince those who don’t study graphs and maps, who listen only to long imprinted jungles?

Good question, and I'm gratified that you related it to my parting remark. I get very tired of people on my side of the debate who think everything boils down to reiterating "facts," or screaming about the scientific method. I've argued elsewhere that this simply doesn't work...or at least, not well enough. People on the left drastically overvalue intelligence and knowledge (while overestimating their own, usually). And not surprisingly, they're often resented for it.

At the same time, the number of hardcore skeptics among the general public remains amazingly small, given the emotional disincentives to accepting the theory and the amount of money that's been spent on muddying the waters.

So it seems clear that our side must be doing something right...whether by making an impassioned "sentimental" case, or taking beautiful photos like yours, or what have you.

As with pretty much every other problem we face, larger and more decisive changes seem to me to be impossible without better education, as well as a return to hands-on programs like the Conservation Corps, which I've wistfully called for in previous posts. But it's going to be an uphill battle for the foreseeable future, because about 25% of the population is capable of believing (or disbelieving) pretty much anything. I've occasionally toyed with the idea that it all boils down to an application of the most extreme hard-right theories of property rights to opinion, but that's a rant for another, drearier day.

So in other words, I totally agree with this: "I think we need to understand these quirks of human nature if we are to have any impact on this debate." But at the same time, I really am heartened by the changes I've seen in my lifetime.