As a recovering climate change contrarian, I remember well the kinds of things that most impressed me as I went through the process of changing my mind. It’s true that the mainstream scientists had some arguments that I thought were pretty difficult to get around, but just as important was the utter lack of intellectual rigor I detected in most of the contrarian arguments. So many of their arguments were obviously absurd, and yet I noticed that many contrarians were absolutely incapable of seeing any problem with them. To me, this was a strong indicator of a movement well on its way to intellectual bankruptcy.
The recent release of 5,000 more stolen e-mails from the University of East Anglia servers has served to reinforce this impression. The stolen e-mails were released along with a README file that included what the hackers apparently thought of as the most damning quotes, and which contrarians have gleefully repeated. (Juliette Jowit at The Guardian has investigated the context of many of these quotes, and her article is well worth a read.) As a working scientist, none of the quotes I have seen has been even remotely surprising. In many of them, the mainstream climate scientists involved made waspish remarks about EACH OTHER, or expressed strong disagreement about EACH OTHER’S work. Wait… I thought the contrarian argument was that these guys uncritically accept anything from their side of the fence. The stolen e-mails make it abundantly clear that this is not the case, although they might provide some limited support for contrarians who have also expressed disagreement about one point or another.
Even out of context, however, I am baffled by the inclusion of some of the quotes in a list that is supposed to be damning to the mainstream scientists. Tommy Wills, for instance, wrote in one e-mail, “What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multidecadal natural fluctuation? They’ll kill us probably….” The only possible reason for thinking this quote is damning is that Wills mentions the possibility that recent global warming is mainly due to natural fluctuations. But since the mainstream view is that this appears very unlikely, rather than impossible, given presently available data, I fail to see why this would impress anyone, aside from the sort of dullards who are incapable of understanding arguments based on probability.
Wills not only mentioned the bare possibility that the mainstream scientists were wrong, however. He went on to say that if they were, they would probably end up getting lynched. I imagine Wills was making a lighthearted joke, here, but sometimes we make jokes out of things that aren’t too far from the truth. Arch-contrarian Lord Christopher Monckton recently told a cheering Australian crowd, for instance, “So to the bogus scientists who have produced the bogus science that invented this bogus scare I say, we are coming after you. We are going to prosecute you, and we are going to lock you up.” So what the out-of-context quote from Tommy Wills really indicates is that 1) mainstream climate scientists like Wills do consider the possibility that their main conclusions are wrong, and 2) they are aware that the issue is so politically charged that there might be serious consequences for being wrong. Honestly, how stupid would a contrarian have to be to include Wills’s quote in the highlights reel?
Am I mistaken to think this kind of thing represents a serious lack of intellectual horsepower under the hood? Could it be that the contrarians are simply having a little petty fun exposing e-mails from (and about) their opponents that seem mildly embarrassing? I don’t think so, but let me illustrate why by pointing to a little mini-controversy I participated in just as the story broke about the new e-mails.
The other day, Anthony Watts, proprieter of the popular contrarian blog, WattsUpWithThat?, posted a piece about how Lord Christopher Monckton got some lawyer to say that Parliament is wrong, and His Lordship really is a member of Parliament. The lawyer’s argument was mainly that the House of Lords Act of 1999 didn’t mean what it said. Since I object to the way Monckton has tried to pad his résumé to enhance his credibility in the climate change debate, especially when he has at least three times falsely represented himself as a member of Parliament to members of the U.S. Congress, I wrote a blog post detailing why I thought Monckton’s lawyer was… well, acting in a manner consistent with the reputation of lawyers in general. At the end of my post, I wrote some comments about how Watts has consistently been willing to approvingly pass on whatever claims Monckton cares to make, no matter how nonsensical, and I went on to note my impression that Watts and his followers are too easily impressed by the kinds of big words and Latin phrases Monckton likes to use. I then went over to Watts’s blog and posted a comment with a link to my argument.
One or two of Watts’s followers took umbrage with my characterization, and Watts chimed in to tell me that I should “should spend time… reading the climatgate 2.0 emails instead of pissing around here in this thread.” I then posted a comment with some more details about why I think Watts is the sort who will post anything, no matter how stupid, by anyone who agrees with him that human-caused global warming is overblown.
I have been. Even out of context, they’re still boring.
And by the way, what do you think about any of the arguments I brought up about Monckton’s claim to be a member of Parliament that Parliament doesn’t know about? What do you think about his post (on your site) in which he claimed that when trying to discredit the IPCC’s temperature projections, he wasn’t obligated to disclose their “actual projections”? Does any of that bother you at all?
I’ve noticed that you often start your posts about Monckton with “I don’t have a dog in this fight”, or some such disclaimer. Well, given how much you’ve used your forum to promote his views without taking a hard look at his alleged chicanery, I’d say he’s your dog now.
Another one of those pets you might have trouble shaking off is Girma Orssengo, whose nonsense you also published on your site. If I remember correctly, his point was that he could fit a line plus a cosine wave to the 20th century temperature data, so it all must be a natural cycle. Really.
The only stupider thing I’ve ever heard anyone with any scientific training say about climate change was when Joe Bastardi told the Fox News audience that the greenhouse effect violates the First Law of Thermodynamics and Le Chatelier’s Principle. Oh, wait! You let him do a guest post about that on your site, too!
What do you think about that? Is that how you view the greenhouse effect?
Do you see why I get the impression that you will publish anything on your site that seems to go against the scientific consensus on climate change?
I don’t think anything about it. I give a voice to lots of people, to you or to anyone who wants to make an reasoned argument. Feel free to submit a guest post here.
Wow. He doesn’t “think anything about” Joe Bastardi’s claim that the greenhouse effect violates the Law of Conservation of Energy. I had to conclude that Watts, a TV weatherman, didn’t have a clue about how the greenhouse effect works, or what the Law of Conservation of Energy implies.
The conversation went on a bit longer, but it was obvious that Watts wanted to ditch me and exclusively deal with the exciting new “Climategate 2.0″ topic. Imagine my surprise when, within a day of our conversation, Watts posted a scathing critique of a piece about the new e-mails, written by a friend of mine, Prof. Scott Mandia (a meteorologist). Watts said Mandia’s piece was “like stupid on steroids,” and was especially scornful of this statement by Mandia.
Here is what we know: The Earth is round, smoking is linked to lung cancer, and humans are changing the climate by emitting massive amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other gases. Like extra blankets at night, those emissions are warming the planet. The physics of greenhouse gases has been understood for more than 100 years. It is not new science.
What did Watts object to, exactly? He first quoted a web page by another meteorology professor.
Does the atmosphere (or any greenhouse gas) act [like] a blanket?
At best, the reference to a blanket is a bad metaphor. Blankets act primarily to suppress convection; the atmosphere acts to enable convection. To claim that the atmosphere acts a blanket, is to admit that you don’t know how either one of them operates.
Watts then went on with his own criticism.
Of course, the rest of this is just a BS strawman argument, most skeptics (and certainly no skeptical scientists) don’t dispute the greenhouse effect, only the magnitude of the effect and confounding factors such as feedbacks and sensitivity. The phrase about smoking and lung cancer is right out of the slimer playbook championed by people like Romm and Gore, who have used such tactics before. The only purpose for it being there is to tar people you disagree with a broad brush.
Now let’s deconstruct all this and see what’s going on.
Mandia’s statement was simply a soundbite-friendly way of saying that the science behind the idea that humans are causing significant climate change is rock solid, and a few more mildly embarrassing quotations from stolen e-mails won’t change that at all. Obviously, any soundbite-friendly statement like that is going to be oversimplified to some extent, so I don’t really mind if Watts wants to object that he has been broadbrushed into the same category as the sort of crackpots who deny the greenhouse effect exists.
Because Watts’s discussion of the blanket metaphor indicates that he DOES have a decent understanding of the greenhouse effect. The blanket metaphor IS scientifically inexact, as Prof. Mandia would readily admit. In fact, it’s scientifically inexact in precisely the same way as the “greenhouse” metaphor itself. While neither metaphor is probably enough for a meteorology class, both are common ways to help people with no background in the subject get the basic idea of what greenhouse gases do.
But if Watts has a decent conceptual grasp of the greenhouse effect, how can he possibly say that he “doesn’t think anything about” Joe Bastardi’s ridiculous assertion that the greenhouse effect violates conservation of energy?
It seems very likely to me that Watts really doesn’t think anything about it–and that’s the problem. Many climate change contrarians, like Watts, simply don’t have any consistent intellectual framework for their ideas. They just know the mainstream science is wrong, and so they tend to grasp onto any argument that seems to detract from the views of mainstream climate scientists. A sort of fog goes up around their brains, preventing them from recognizing the absurdity of even the stupidest contrarian arguments. Likewise, everything in the stolen e-mails looks sinister to them, no matter how innocuous it really is.
To my mind, the all-pervasiveness of arguments like these, that are rarely challenged within the climate change contrarian community, is a very strong indicator that their movement has filed for intellectual bankruptcy.
P.S. This seems an opportune time to give a plug for my Bickmore’s Laws page by reproducing three relevant excerpts.
Bickmore’s First Law of Being Reasonable
Reasonable people understand that good arguments can sometimes lead to false conclusions, and bad arguments can sometimes lead to true conclusions.
Bickmore’s Second Law of Being Reasonable
Reasonable people resist bad arguments, even if they agree with the conclusions.
Bickmore’s First Law of Being Biased
Bias makes you human. Unckecked bias makes you stupid.