Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Climate Change and Faith

One of the ironies of the debate on global warming - or, as supporters are wont to call it during cold spells, “climate change” - is that proponents of the view that anthropological warming is real and an urgent problem claim that they, unlike their opponents, are on the side of “science,” but their absolute belief in their point of view despite the accumulating evidence against it is more akin to fervent religious belief than science. Much as some fundamentalist Christians persist in the view that the world is around 6,000 years old despite evidence from fossils and rocks, global warming are not disturbed in the least that predictions of climate change models are way off. 

As Charles Flemming notes in “6 Pro Tips on Persuading Global Warming Deniers to Come to the Light”:
Appeal to “science” is an illegitimate appeal to authority. A way to shut down dissent. Real scientists don’t appeal to authority. They appeal to data.
And, as a bonus tip to the article, a reader contributed:
State what data or outcomes would DISprove AGW.
(Hint: If none, it’s not science.)
Indeed. ("Freezing is the New Warming," at RealClear Politics, makes a similar point.)

All the more dispiriting, then, to see that  Ars Technica, in a blog post entitled “On moderation in climate discussions”, has sided with the forces of anti-scientific nonsense. In the guise of better moderating discussions, the post says:
When it comes to climate discussions (and science discussions in general), we identify trolling based on two simple principles that apply to all discussions on the site:
1. Article discussions are meant to be just that: discussions. Contributions should be beneficial to the discussion.
2. Misinformation is not beneficial to discussions. Furthermore, discussions do not exist in order to give a platform to broadcast misinformation.
Starting a discussion by throwing out phrases like "the whole thing is a giant fraud" is a quick way to get a moderator's warning. Even if you're not aware of the history of our understanding of the greenhouse effect (there's over a century of it) or the decades' worth of work that has built our modern understanding of the climate, it should be clear that diverse governments, private organizations, companies, and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change and take it seriously. So this statement clearly violates principle 2, but it also violates 1. There's really no possible useful discussion that can grow out of a statement that's completely oblivious to reality.
While it’s hard to argue with the two principles articulated, the example below the two principles shows what Ars really means. Not the “the whole thing is a giant fraud” part, but the blithe claim that “diverse governments…and scientists all recognize the reality of climate change.” So what Ars means is that you’re a troll if you don’t buy the line. It’s a consensus, so shut up.

Of course, in today’s group-think, this “moderation” finds a receptive audience with the faithful. A  comment by “chipmunkofdoom2” seems to be representative of those I skimmed:
Incredibly balanced and unapologetic. I don't know of any other site that moderates straight up denial of years upon years of scientific data.
“Incredibly balanced,” eh? (I’m reminded of the line from The Blues Brothers, regarding the type of music played at Bob’s Country Bunker: “Oh, we got both kinds. We got Country and Western.”)

I take the view that, in a quote attributed to Daniel Moynihan, everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Of course, facts are endlessly malleable, aren't they? From a recent Best of the Web Today:

Two Newsmagazines in One! 
    "Scientists have found other indications of global cooling. For one thing there has been a noticeable expansion of the great belt of dry, high-altitude polar winds--the so-called circumpolar vortex--that sweep from west to east around the top and bottom of the world."--Time, June 24, 1974 
    "Not only does the cold spell not disprove climate change, it may well be that global warming could be making the occasional bout of extreme cold weather in the U.S. even more likely. Right now much of the U.S. is in the grip of a polar vortex, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a whirlwind of extremely cold, extremely dense air that forms near the poles."--Time.com, Jan. 6, 2014
One fact, two polar (ha ha) opposite interpretations.

I don't like being labeled a climate change "denier." No one denies that the climate is changing, anyway, but, more to the point, I'm a skeptic, not a denier. I'd like a hypothesis and then a test of the hypothesis. I'm not the only one, either. In "Freezing is the New Warming," the author concludes:

Note that there is never any pause to acknowledge that maybe scientists should investigate the hypothesis that warming isn't as big or inevitable as they have predicted. 
No, it's on to the next ad hoc rationalization. That's the basic pattern: an unproven theory reinforces itself in the face of contradictory evidence by generating additional unproven theories. 
What interests me is how global warming is degrading, in plain sight, into a textbook case of pseudoscience—all while remaining an unassailable article of belief among those who think of themselves as pro-science. 
One of the famous characteristics of pseudo-science is that it is "unfalsifiable." That is, the theory is constructed in such a way that there is no evidence that could possibly refute it. The classic example is Freudian psychoanalysis, which tells you that you have an Oedipus Complex, and if you deny it, that's just proof that you're repressing it. Or take the creationist theory that God created the world to appear as if it was older than it really is. So if we find evidence that the dinosaurs lived 100 million years before the events of the Bible, that's just because God planted the evidence there. Try refuting that one! 
Or try refuting global warming. Temperatures have stopped warming for more than a decade? That's just a temporary "pause" in the warming that we just know is going to come roaring back any day now. Antarctic ice is growing? That's actually caused by the melting of ice, don't you know. A vicious cold snap that sets record low temperatures? That's just because the North Pole is actually warming. So if the winter is warm, that's global warming, but if the winter is cold, that's global warming, too. If sea ice is disappearing, that's global warming, but if sea ice is increasing, that's global warming. 
Now we can see what they mean when the warmthers say that global warming is supported by an ironclad scientific consensus. The theory is so irrefutable that it's unfalsifiable! 
Which is to say that it has become a cognitive spaghetti bowl full of ad hoc rationalizations, rather than a genuine scientific hypothesis. 
I don't expect to change any minds, but I would like Congress to stop spending my money on this bowl of pasta.

1 comment:

Fogwoman Gray said...

Based on my reading and understanding of the science, my take has been that yes, the climate is certainly changing. Climate change is a historic variable throughout the lifetime of the planet.
Is our presence on the planet impacting the climate? Certainly, in demonstrable ways.
Is there anything that can be done at this juncture to moderate the rate of change or stop it altogether? Short of removing the vast majority of the population and it's associated infrastructure? Doubtful.
So I think the answer is recognizing that the climate is going to change significantly and will impact large portions of the population.