by Judith Curry
On experts, lukewarmers, and unhappy heretics.
Shortly after I started Climate Etc. in 2010, Scientific American published an article Climate Heretic Judith Curry Turns on Her Colleagues. I responded with a blog post Heresy and the Creation of Monsters. Climate heresy, in response to the consensus climate change dogma, has been a major motivation and theme at Climate Etc.
This past week, there have been two terrific articles on climate heresy and heretics.
Scott Adams – The non-expert problem
Scott Adams of Dilbert fame has published an astonishingly insightful article: The non-expert problem and climate change science. Excerpts:
Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.
If you have been involved in any climate change debates online or in person, you know they always take the following trajectory: Climate science believers state that all the evidence, and 98% of scientists, are on the same side. Then skeptics provide links to credible-sounding articles that say the science is bunk, and why. How the heck can you – a non-expert – judge who is right?
You probably default to trusting whatever the majority of scientists tell you. But how reliable are experts, even when they are mostly on the same side?
Ask the majority of polling experts who said Trump had only a 2% chance of becoming president. Ask the experts who said the government’s historical “food pyramid” was good science. What you really want to know is whether climate change looks more like the sort of thing that turns out to be right or the sort of thing that turns out to be wrong.
It seems to me that a majority of experts could be wrong whenever you have a pattern that looks like this:
- A theory has been “adjusted” in the past to maintain the conclusion even though the data has changed.
- Prediction models are complicated.
- The models require human judgment to decide how variables should be treated.
- There is a severe social or economic penalty for having the “wrong” opinion in the field.
- There are so many variables that can be measured – and so many that can be ignored – that you can produce any result you want by choosing what to measure and what to ignore.
- The argument from the other side looks disturbingly credible.
I’m a trained hypnotist and I have studied the methods of persuasion for years. No one is using reason, facts, or common sense to arrive at a decision about climate science. Here’s what you are using to arrive at your decision:
- Unwarranted trust in experts
- Pattern recognition
On the question of fear, in my experience, any danger we humans see coming far in the future we always find a way to fix.
On the question of trusting experts, I see experts as far less credible than most people assume.
And when it comes to pattern recognition, I see the climate science skeptics within the scientific community as being similar to Shy Trump Supporters. The fact that a majority of scientists agree with climate science either means the evidence is one-sided or the social/economic pressures are high. And as we can plainly see, the cost of disagreeing with climate science is unreasonably high if you are a scientist.
And if the risk of climate change isn’t real, I will say I knew it all along because climate science matches all of the criteria for a mass hallucination by experts.
Roger Pielke Jr – My unhappy life as a climate heretic
Roger Pielke Jr has published a stunning op-ed in the WSJ – My unhappy life as a climate heretic. Excerpts:
Much to my surprise, I showed up in the WikiLeaks releases before the election. In a 2014 email, a staffer at the Center for American Progress, founded by John Podesta in 2003, took credit for a campaign to have me eliminated as a writer for Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website. In the email, the editor of the think tank’s climate blog bragged to one of its billionaire donors, Tom Steyer: “I think it’s fair [to] say that, without Climate Progress, Pielke would still be writing on climate change for 538.”
WikiLeaks provides a window into a world I’ve seen up close for decades: the debate over what to do about climate change, and the role of science in that argument.
When substantively countering an academic’s research proves difficult, other techniques are needed to banish it. That is how politics sometimes works, and professors need to understand this if we want to participate in that arena.
More troubling is the degree to which journalists and other academics joined the campaign against me.
I believe climate change is real and that human emissions of greenhouse gases risk justifying action, including a carbon tax. But my research led me to a conclusion that many climate campaigners find unacceptable: There is scant evidence to indicate that hurricanes, floods, tornadoes or drought have become more frequent or intense in the U.S. or globally. My conclusion might be wrong, but I think I’ve earned the right to share this research without risk to my career.
Instead, my research was under constant attack for years by activists, journalists and politicians.
Or look at the journalists who helped push me out of FiveThirtyEight. My first article there, in 2014, . . . pointed out that the global cost of disasters was increasing at a rate slower than GDP growth, which is very good news. Disasters still occur, but their economic and human effect is smaller than in the past.
That article prompted an intense media campaign to have me fired. Writers at Slate, Salon, the New Republic, the New York Times, the Guardian and others piled on.
In March of 2014, FiveThirtyEight editor Mike Wilson demoted me from staff writer to freelancer. A few months later I chose to leave the site after it became clear it wouldn’t publish me. The mob celebrated. Penn State’s Michael Mann called my departure a “victory for climate truth.” The Center for American Progress promised its donor Mr. Steyer more of the same.
Yet the climate thought police still weren’t done. In 2013 committees in the House and Senate invited me to a several hearings to summarize the science on disasters and climate change.
In early 2014, not long after I appeared before Congress, President Obama’s science adviser John Holdren testified before the same Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He was asked about his public statements that appeared to contradict the scientific consensus on extreme weather events that I had earlier presented. Mr. Holdren followed up by posting a strange essay, of nearly 3,000 words, on the White House website under the heading, “An Analysis of Statements by Roger Pielke Jr.,” where it remains today.
I suppose it is a distinction of a sort to be singled out in this manner by the president’s science adviser. Yet Mr. Holdren’s screed reads more like a dashed-off blog post from the nutty wings of the online climate debate, chock-full of errors and misstatements.
But when the White House puts a target on your back on its website, people notice. Almost a year later Mr. Holdren’s missive was the basis for an investigation of me by Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Rep. Grijalva explained in a letter to my university’s president that I was being investigated because Mr. Holdren had “highlighted what he believes were serious misstatements by Prof. Pielke of the scientific consensus on climate change.”
The “investigation” turned out to be a farce. My heretical views can be traced to research support from the U.S. government.
But the damage to my reputation had been done, and perhaps that was the point.
But the lesson is that a lone academic is no match for billionaires, well-funded advocacy groups, the media, Congress and the White House. If academics—in any subject—are to play a meaningful role in public debate, the country will have to do a better job supporting good-faith researchers, even when their results are unwelcome. This goes for Republicans and Democrats alike, and to the administration of President-elect Trump.
Academics and the media in particular should support viewpoint diversity instead of serving as the handmaidens of political expediency by trying to exclude voices or damage reputations and careers. If academics and the media won’t support open debate, who will?
Matt Ridley – My Life as a Lukewarmer.
In response to RP Jr’s op-ed, Matt Ridley tweeted the link to a comparable essay he wrote in 2015 – My Life as a Lukewarmer. Excerpts:
I am a climate lukewarmer. That means I think recent global warming is real, mostly man-made and will continue but I no longer think it is likely to be dangerous and I think its slow and erratic progress so far is what we should expect in the future.
This view . . . is even more infuriating to most publicly funded scientists and politicians, who insist climate change is a big risk.
I was even kept off the shortlist for a part-time, unpaid public-sector appointment in a field unrelated to climate because of having this view, or so the headhunter thought. In the climate debate, paying obeisance to climate scaremongering is about as mandatory for a public appointment, or public funding, as being a Protestant was in 18th-century England.
I was not always a lukewarmer. When I first started writing about the threat of global warming more than 26 years ago, as science editor of The Economist, I thought it was a genuinely dangerous threat.
Gradually, however, I changed my mind. What sealed my apostasy from climate alarm was the extraordinary history of the famous “hockey stick” graph, which purported to show that today’s temperatures were higher and changing faster than at any time in the past thousand years. I began to read the work of two Canadian researchers, Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick.
What shocked me more was the scientific establishment’s reaction to this: it tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. And then a flood of emails was leaked in 2009 showing some climate scientists apparently scheming to withhold data, prevent papers being published, get journal editors sacked and evade freedom-of-information requests, much as sceptics had been alleging. That was when I began to re-examine everything I had been told about climate change and, the more I looked, the flakier the prediction of rapid warming seemed.
The policies being proposed to combat climate change, far from being a modest insurance policy, are proving ineffective, expensive, harmful to poor people and actually bad for the environment: we are tearing down rainforests to grow biofuels and ripping up peat bogs to install windmills that still need fossil-fuel back-up. Some insurance policy.
To begin with, after I came out as a lukewarmer, I would get genuine critiques from scientists who disagreed with me and wanted to exchange views. They often resorted to meta-arguments, especially the argument from authority: if the Royal Society says it is alarmed, then you should be alarmed. If I want argument from authority, I replied, I will join the Catholic Church.
One by one, many of the most prominent people in the climate debate began to throw vitriolic playground abuse at me. I was “paranoid”, “specious”, “risible”, “self-defaming”, “daft”, “lying”, “irrational”, an “idiot”. Their letters to the editor or their blog responses asserted that I was “error-riddled” or had seriously misrepresented something, but then they not only failed to substantiate the charge but often roughly confirmed what I had written.
Talking of the committee on climate change, last year Lord Deben commissioned an entire report to criticise something I had said. Among other howlers, it included a quotation from the IPCC but the quote had a large chunk cut from the middle. When this cut was restored the line supported me, not Lord Deben. When I pointed this out politely to Lord Deben, he refused to restore the excision and left the document unchanged on the committee’s website.
I suppose all this fury means my arguments are hitting home.
I have never met a climate sceptic, let alone a lukewarmer, who wants his opponents silenced. I wish I could say the same of those who think climate change is an alarming prospect.
The truly astonishing thing about all this is how little climate heretics – such as myself, Roger Pielke, and Matt Ridley – actually diverge from the consensus science position: RP Jr. hews strictly to the IPCC consensus; Matt Ridley is on the lukewarm side of the IPCC consensus, and I have stated that the uncertainties are too large to justify high confidence in the consensus statements.
RP Jr and Matt Ridley provide appalling examples of the personal and arguably unethical attacks from other scientists, journalists, elected politicians and others with government appointments.
Scott Adams provides some genuine (and as always, humorous) insights into the psychology behind the dynamics of the climate debate.
As to the question: to be or not to be a climate heretic?
I’m planning a climate heretic blog post shortly after the first of the year. After seeing RP Jr’s title, perhaps I will title it ‘Happy Heretic’ (stay tuned). Here’s to hoping that the Age of Trump will herald the demise of climate change dogma and acceptance of a broader range of perspectives on climate science and our policy options .