Skeptics, Alarmists- it all comes back to the Left and the Right

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter with Keith Kloor yesterday after taking him to task for his post comparing anti-GMO activists with climate skeptics.

Actually, I was focusing on the “denialism” word, missing that his use of the word “skeptic” in the title- GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left- was just as misleading and in fact a contradiction, as I will explain…

Keith responded straight away to the post:

and when I quoted back to him from his own article he replied:

Now I have to say this seems a little disingenuous. The case I am making is that “denialism” is a politically loaded word that needs to be used with great care; if it is not defined, it is really just a way of marginalizing anyone you don’t agree with. Of course I am not trying to ban the word, of course it has general meanings and is used in other contexts; but Keith has used it here, in this context of climate change, apparently approving of outlets such as Mother Jones and Grist who use it regularly to… well, it would seem to me, to marginalize opposing political views. Keith is surely not using the word “denialism” merely descriptively without being aware of how it is used by the people he is talking about; he is using it because he agrees with this usage.

It is true, I was not aware of the posts Keith had written on the subject; but they confirm of course that he is well aware of the issue, he has clearly given it much thought, which makes his cavalier use of it here-by way of comparison with anti-GMO activists- more peculiar still.

In this post indeed he gives examples of responses he received from scientists and bloggers form an email discussion group who actually went to the trouble of discussing with each other what the difference between the terms “skeptic” and “denier” and when each is appropriate to use.

The whole discussion is odd indeed, the participants, including Kloor, apparently without self-awareness about what they are trying to do: place undefined labels on people whose views they disagree with. Kloor already kicks this off with his comment

Do you know any climate skeptics who are fine with being called a climate denier?

-but he still has not defined what these terms mean- that is the whole purpose of the ensuing discussion- so the question is Gobbledegook.

Bud Ward, editor of the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media, said

Deniers has its own baggage — denying what exactly? ALL of the underlying science — at least in as much as the climate is warming and humans unquestionably play a significant role in that warming? Perhaps, but it’s fine to accept both of those points, based on ample and various streams of evidence, and yet be a denier on the proposed remedies (cap and trade, or tax, etc). Anything even inadvertently hinting of the Holocaust — as in “denialist” — clearly is off-limits.{My emphasis}

Ward is raising the same issues that I addressed in my last post; but his third sentence seems extraordinary- he is explicitly stating that you can be a policy denier. Huh? So it is all about politics!

I tweeted back the last sentence in bold- Ward expressly states here that the very word Kloor uses- denialism- is “off-limits.” Kloor had already taken the trouble to have this discussion,and yet ignores this obviously good advice in his recent post. Why?

I pointed out that Grist, MJ routinely use “denier” to describe anyone who doesn’t support the Kyoto protocol; and asked Keith if he took their side in this, to which he replied:

But if he does not support the use of “denier” or “skeptic” in this sense, then why does he call his post GMO Opponents Are the Climate Skeptics of the Left? Isn’t he tacitly accepting that, if say questioning Kyoto is not really denialism- that it could be a reasonable position and not an “anti-science” one (as with anti-GMO) does that not mean that in princciple Keith Kloor himself could be deemed to be a denialist by MJ or Grist?

Back on Keith’s email discussion, Roger Pielke set the cat amongst the pigeons:

Let’s call them “yellow bellied sap suckers”! Whatever we call them, it should be clear that there is a “them” and there is an “us” and we should be sure to make clear that “their” views are illegitimate or profane, and “our” views are consensual and righteous.

I recommend jerseys for their different teams, perhaps Chelsea jerseys for the bad guys and Arsenal jerseys for those with “us” (seriously, anyone thinking Chelsea will win the title is a denier for sure;-)

What an utterly insane conversation this is!

to which Keith responds by arguing that we need to define our terms.

The problem is that they are still not very well defined. John Fleck agrees:

I think as a journalist, in order to be useful to my readers, I have to use none of the terms. The fact that we have to have this discussion at all means the terms have no crisp meaning, but rather mean different things to different people.

If a word has the potential to mislead your readers, don’t use it. Use a descriptive phrase instead.

-which was basically the reason why I started on this issue in the first place. Use of words like “denier” and “skeptic” in this context conceal more than they inform; they are simply best avoided because we really don’t know what they mean.

There was a couple of other attempts at definition on Kloor’s posts.

Some of the comments also reinforce the view that the words are just not useful and best avoided:

If a journalist uses the term “denier” to describe sceptics then I know that journalist is a climate zealot and that any information provided by that journalist is hopelessly biased and ultimately useless.

Now I am not a journalist but it seems to be that using terms which tell a large chunk of your potential audience that you should be ignored is a bad idea unless one has plans for a career as a pundit on MSNBC.

Kloor points us to David Brin’s explanation for why he wrote his article in Skeptic which Kloor picked up on. It is really quite astonishing:

The denier movement pretends to be about asking honest questions about a scientific matter that is both complex and *possibly* fraught with systematic errors. I believe that honest skeptics can play an important role there. But denialism is ALSO about preventing the community consensus in atmospheric science from affecting public policy. They insist on a burden of proof that 99%+ of skilled experts in a field are insufficient – and yet a slim majority of science-illiterate politicians (during the Bush Era) and now a40% *minority* of science-clueless politicians – should have absolute power to ignore the best scientific advice of the era.

In the midst of a controversial and extensive debate on use and meaning of the words “denier” and “skeptic” Brin, the originator of the whole discussion, casually but pointedly uses these very same words with very little actual definition of the positions they actually refer to. He continues:

When the precautionary principal shows us a genuine (if as-yet unproved) chance of catastrophic risk, prudent measures are called for before the risk is “proved.” Yes, there can be arguments over other tradeoffs like economic impact. But when the denier side was responsible for (a) catastrophically bad economic management and an economic theory (supply side) that always and universally failed, and (b) deliberate obstruction of ANY climate palliation measures, even basic research…

This is nothing more than political ranting. There is that weasel concept “precautionary principle” again,  as an undefined political concept wheeled out and pressed into service to define another . It is certainly generous to allow that there may become “economic impact” at mitigation efforts, which is of course really the whole crux of the political debate, but Brin himself gives no analysis of this, basically sweeping the whole gamut of complex and contentious issues around costs and benefits of climate and energy policy under a rickety table of increasingly desperate political hand-flapping.

It gets worse:

3) Since most (admittedly not all) climate palliation measures are blatantly “things we ought to do anyway”  (TWODA), in order to seek economic success, reduce dependence upon foreign petro-lords, dominate new industries and make a safer world, this obstructionism is especially nonsensical.  Indeed, this is the smoking gun proof that koolaid-drinking deniers are parroting talking points from a conniving oligarchy that is spreading sedition purely for personal benefit.  Those who dance under such marionette strings may not be directly culpable.  But neither do we have to give credibility to puppets.

This was the reason for my article in SKEPTIC Magazine (subscribe!;-)  Those who are genuine, nit-picking and scientifically informed skeptics ought to be able to say – aloud – all of the statements that I list.  Statements that clearly distinguish such people from members of a flagrantly loony Denier Cult.

OK that’s that finally settled then: the policies advocated by those who call for urgent action on reducing CO2 emissions, presumably including things like Kyoto and switching as fast as possible into “clean” energy sources like wind and solar- are already a given. We just kind of know- intuitively perhaps- a deep inner kind of knowing- that this is True and Good and Right, so we don’t need any analyses or science for this bit. Anyone who disagrees are members of a “flagrantly loony Denier Cult.”

For anyone reading this and scratching their head in complete confusion, especially any scientists reading from a GE perspective, Roger Pielke has a handy 10-point list that illustrate neatly what the issues at stake here are and should show clearly why science and policy issues around climate change are simply not comparable in any way really to those around genetic engineering.

The anti-GMO folks are most definitely NOT the climate skeptics of the Left. It is a self-contradictory statement that makes absolutely no sense. (Think again about Kloor’s bizarre and truly Orwellian statement I linked to earlier-  Do you know any climate skeptics who are fine with being called a climate denier?)

It is all pretty straightforward for GE: there is no plausible scientific mechanism that would make the insertion of a gene from one species to another inherently more risky than ay other form of plant breeding- on balance, it is likely to be less risky.; also we can test the safety of particular traits in repeatable, verifiable lab feeding trials, and the good quality ones have shown no problems, of if they have, then that trait is discontinued. Policy: GE is a safe and very useful technology that can actually help remediate some of the worst excesses of industrial farming. No need to label; let’s proceed with proper regulations. Those who say know are homeopaths woo-merchants and therefore “anti-science”.

Another reason why it is different from climate science is cost: the issue for GE is, s it safe and useful? There is no politically charged debate about costs, discount rates for future generations etc.. GE technology should be a net benefit- quite possibly a dramatic one that helps us feed the world with reduced environmental impact.

Climate change: many orders of magnitude more complex. CO2 is a warming gas and probably contributing to rising temperatures; how much, what the effects might be, what we can or should do about it are matters for politics to address. There are no easy answers, no repeatable lab experiments that will give us the answer. The “orthodox” policy of Kyoto-style treaties is not working; but all is not lost. There is an alternative, which I would call “Lomborgian”: invest a lot more into R&D into clean energy sources; support the move from dirty coal to cleaner gas in the short term; don’t rule out nuclear which could be a major player in the future; don’t rule out CCS or geo-engineering and invest in research there as well.In the meantime, we need to keep everyone warm and the lights on. Claims that catastrophe is looming come from people with an agenda, not from science- especially if those same people are anti-nuclear and anti-fracking.

Robert Bryce calls this approach “N2N”: move into gas in the short-term with a long-term look at nuclear. The important thing though is the vision of saying, we don’t have the technology yet to provide a solution without reversing the industrialisation of the last hundred years, but there is every reason to be hopeful we will in a few decades. Rushing into costly diffuse renewables now could be a very costly mistake that won’t have any effect on the climate in any case.

I must say my brain did start to hurt after plowing through all this. It remains a mystery to me as to why Keith Kloor, who has obviously been deeply immersed in these semantic issues for a long time, could write such a high-profile article and blatantly disregard all the issues raised on his own previous posts and in the hundreds of comments they attracted? I still could not work out precisely what Kloor meant by either his use of the word “skeptic” or the word “denialism”.

And then it hit me. In a flash of genius that I only get, oh, once every couple of weeks or so, the dust cleared, the light shone through and I realised at last, I had the answer to what these confusing terms mean:

when people use words like “skeptics” and “denier” they simply mean people on the Right, or those who would tend towards a more market- based approach than a regulatory-based approach. That’s it. That is really all there is to it. Nothing more than that- it never was anything about science at all and was always entirely about politics.

The traditional “Left” prefer state regulation, strong environmental controls, and invoke something almost spiritual, “the precautionary principle”. They tend to see human excess as rather Bad and in need of moral constraint. They are concerned about the cost of dong things rather than not doing things.

The “Right” on the other hand like progress, emphasize wealth-creation and free-market solutions. They are more concerned about the cost of not doing things, of technology and commerce being held back. This is important, because of course the wealthier we are, the better placed we will be to adapt and mitigate and putative climate effects.

In terms of reducing CO2 emissions, it does rather look like the latter has been more successful than the former so far with the switch to shale gas. Just sayin’.

When the Green Left use the word “denier” they are sometimes using it to discredit people on the Right who they feel are deliberately confusing the issues and trying to break the carefully-constructed “consensus” form the Left: but is this just a reaction against the routine fear-mongering and anti-science exaggeration that I gave examples from in MJ and Grist in my previous post? I think it might be. Every action provokes a reaction. All it really shows is what we already know in politics: there is no consensus.

Kloor explores in one of his posts the importance of calling out those “on your side” who misuse or misrepresent the science. I am calling him out here for apparently siding with Grist and MJ on climate alarmism and posturing on politics under the shield of “settled science”. But he can’t call them out on this because if he were to do so he would no longer be on their side. He too would be a denier.

STOP PRESS: A stunning example of where all this is heading has just come in via Richard Betts: in my previous post I said that of course no-one has called IPCC lead author Richard Betts a “denier” -but I was being semi-ironic because of course the point is, many on the Left have moved so far away from the cautious stance of many scientists that the actual science is looking more and more denialist all the time:

We still have to wonder why this new division on the Left between the pro- and anti- GMO groups? Again, I think this comes down to the nature of the science: left/liberal leaning scientists with environmental concerns understand science, so they know GE is safe, and they see the benefits of collaboration with industry. This leads them to parting company with their traditional allies in the environmentalist activist movement who are vehemently anti-capitalist first, pro-science a distant second, and don’t actually want to see technological progress of this kind because they have given up on science and technology which are seen as the bad guys of the whole movie anyway. I still think many of them have a blind spot when it comes to climate science: perhaps unfamiliar with the complexity of the scientific and energy policy issues, they tend to see it as black-and-white, pro-science and “anti-science” (like homeopaths); the evidence is clear and unambiguous, therefore the policy response is as well; maybe, it seems to me, they tend to think “settled science” in climate is the same as just doing more lab-rat feeding trials.

Postscript: In the Twitter exchange, Ben Pile @clim8resistance called me out on my use of the term “anti-science” claiming that he knows some homeopaths who support scientific methodology and claim evidence in their support. I am highly skeptical of this of course. I have had enough debates with homeopath-supporters to know that many will flat-out deny science -”science has been wrong before!” roll their eyes mystically and claim “other ways of knowing”- and then pull out a cherry-picked study to prove their point!
He also pointed me to a very thoughtful piece he wrote in response to Mark Lynas‘ book on planetary boundaries, which addresses many of the same issues I am raising here.

Andrew Apel @AgBioEye maintains skepticism about what the “settled science” is, arguing that temperature rise precedes CO2 increases (which may then amplify the warming). Personally, I think this is a perfectly valid skeptical position to take- but claiming certainty about it might not be!

For myself, I am glad to remain agnostic on these issues; this is a luxury we can afford, because the policy demands of the “alarmist” camp- those on the Left who routinely exaggerate and fear-monger about CAGW as shown in my last post is routine for the likes of MJ and Grist- are not in any case achievable. There really is no simple, crisp, no-brainer solution to either energy policy or climate change. Removing from the discourse the weasel words “skeptic” and “denier” might be a first step for bringing this awkward truth into clearer view.

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3 Comments

  1. Just some clarification on some points that Twitter doesn’t allow for… I questioned the ‘anti-science’ category, because in my experience, there are homoeopaths etc, who attempt to use, rather than reject science to make their arguments. But these people are categorised as ‘anti-science’, especially by the New Rationalists/angry atheists. I think this is a mistake, because it isn’t really science which is being rejected as such in those cases. I see this as a shortcoming of New Rationalism, which can only explain things in such terms as ‘anti-science’, whereas there are much better ways of understanding the phenomenon of irrational movements than simply being ‘against science’. Notice, for e.g. that even in the case of those who eschew science to defend homoeopathy, it’s not a fight picked with science as such; their anti-science is incidental. What is much more useful to understanding it is to find reasons why people do not trust in public institutions like (evidence-based) medicine.

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  2. I finally recognize what I am denying: that climate change (aka Anthropogenic Global Warming) is an existential threat. AGW is not an existential threat. It may be increased significantly (which may, or may not, mean statistically relevant) by human activity. So, if it is not an existential threat and is merely a nosebleed, does it make sense to place a tourniquet around our collective necks? Even if it is an existential threat does it make sense to place a tourniquet around our collective necks?

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  3. Wow, when Brin says, “When the precautionary principal shows us a genuine (if as-yet unproved) chance of catastrophic risk, prudent measures are called for before the risk is “proved.” Yes, there can be arguments over other tradeoffs like economic impact. But when the denier side was responsible for (a) catastrophically bad economic management and an economic theory (supply side) that always and universally failed, and (b) deliberate obstruction of ANY climate palliation measures, even basic research…“, this is nothing less than Name Calling, as though everyone who is against, to my mind, insane policies (e.g., zero growth) is a Conservative Republican. I most assuredly am not.

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