Saturday, 12 December 2009

The Climate Change House

Much of my time this week has been spent reading about climate change. Between the shitstorm that kicked off over the "Climategate" emails, and the ongoing conference at Copenhagen, all anyone seems to want to talk about is the exact degree to which we are screwed as a civilisation.

A lot of what is bobbing around the intertubes is feebly considered chittering by re-energised deniers. Never people who were afraid of overstating their case, the revelation that individual scientists might not be entirely above the occasional piece of corner-cutting has led many of the blogohedron's most incoherent bottom-dwellers (and Sarah Palin) to suggest the smoking gun has been found which requires we tear down all of what we currently understand on climate change and start afresh.

The exact degree to which the East Anglia emails reveal anything is being hotly debated, but the suggestion that this somehow invalidates the entirety of our assembled knowledge got me thinking. Between this, and a conversation I've been having on the SFX forum, I've put together some of my thoughts on the issue, and figured it might be of some limited interest as a complete post.

I don't think we'd have nearly so much of a problem with climate change deniers if they understood the nature of science, and the nature of scepticism. I always think that a good way to think of the way science advances is to imagine the building of a house. When we first start exploring a new concept, there's nothing there. We start arguing about how best to lay the foundations. How deep should they go, what material should they be made from, and so on. At that point, if someone shows up and says "Guys, maybe we should build this thing a little to the left", then there's no particularly compelling reason not to entertain the notion.

If, on the other hand, we've gotten the whole exterior structure finished, along with the interior, and we're trying to decide what sort of window frames we want to put in, and that guy shows up, he'd better have an excellent reason for wanting to tear the whole damn thing down before he's going to get anywhere. On the other hand, if he says "Guys, maybe we don't need all those windows anyway", we'd be more likely to listen. This is why it's frustrating to hear people yelling "You're shutting out dissent!". We now know enough about climate change and its causes that the building that's been made is pretty sturdy. Thus, the people who show up and say "We need to move this building six feet over there!" need to show very compelling evidence in order to make us agree that the whole thing needs to be torn down.

This is also why arguments that there is no such thing as "settled science" are so unconvincing. Yes, there is always work to be done around the edges. I've had deniers point out to me that the Theory of Relativity isn't even done with yet, so we have no business declaring the climate change debate concluded. What's important to remember, though, is that the sort of fine-tuning that such consideration amounts to is analogous to wanting to fiddle with the windows. If someone came along and said "I have decided that E equals m c cubed!", they'd be laughed out of the building unless their maths-fu was just too awesome to be refuted.

As I say, deniers' screams that dissent is being deliberately excluded is so ridiculous. Dissent is entirely necessary in science, and climate science is no exception. The problem with the dissent currently being offered by those who want to move the building is that it's just incredibly crappy. Those who label themselves "climate sceptics" (with varying degrees of accuracy) never really seem to care about that. They label all dissent as equally worthy. Doubt is doubt, and it doesn't matter whether it's doubt in a God, doubt that dogs bark, or doubt that Pluto is made of candy. For those of us who can understand that not all opinions are equally valid, however, you need a damn good slice of science goodness to knock down the climate change building, and no-one has come up with one. Those that have tried have had their work torn to pieces very, very quickly. This is not because dissent is intolerable, it's because bad science is intolerable, and anyone who says differently is suffering from the same delusion as the people who claim it's a violation of their free speech to be told that what they're saying is total rubbish.

There is much more sensible dissent to be found on the windows issue. The exact proportion of which these changes are mankind's fault. Whether those worse-case predictions of New York ending up below sea level are likely to come to pass. And, of course, discussions are ongoing. Since they amount to fiddling around the edges to determine the precise extent to which we are fucked as a species, though, arguing that until that debate is also concluded it's best not to bother with doing anything at all seems pretty foolish.

All of this is to say nothing of how difficult it is to get deniers to explain exactly what they mean by "settled" in the first place. I've already posted one possible way of considering such issues previously, so I won't repeat myself, I'll just mention that one of the reasons we refer to those who disagree on this issue as deniers rather than sceptics is because their bloody-minded refusal to swallow what they're told immediately disappears the instant someone tells them what they want to hear. Scepticism needs to be applied to both sides; otherwise it really is just denial, plain and simple. Anyone who says "Since we can't 100% be sure we won't find out this theory is wrong later on, it's best not to act on it now," isn't being sceptical, they're deciding what they want to be true and arguing anything that disagrees with them is worthless because it can't be stated with 100% certainty. It's exactly as dumb as saying "science can't prove hamburgers won't fall to Earth in my back garden", and then starving to death waiting for it to rain. Only that analogy isn't fair, because what they're really doing is telling everyone they think they should be waiting for the burger squalls too, and they're doing it in the knowledge that if they're wrong and the grilled meat patties don't start falling, there are plenty of other people who will die of starvation long before they do.

This ludicrous one-sided application of cynicism permeates everything the deniers do. The most critical and basic mistake they make is failing to recognise that "climate change is illusory/unstoppable" [1] is in itself a theory. Which means that it too must be built into a house. And no-one can. No-one's even been able to sketch out the foundations the building would need, and those that have tried have been convincingly rebutted almost immediately. These people have no workable theory, they just know they don’t like the only theory we’ve got. If you were to try and assemble the thousands of pathetically inept posts out on the web by people arguing for their theory, each of them inevitably titled “THE REAL TRUTH AT LAST!” or “THE LIES OF THE SCIENTISTS” or something equally histrionic, you wouldn’t have a building, just a really, really high mound of shit.

In essence, the arguments of the climate deniers are very similar to those who argue in favour of intelligent design by arguing certain types of shrimp tail are too complicated for evolution to have come up with them. It's sleight of hand, pretending that there exists a baseline theory, and any gaps in an alternative theory must mean the baseline assumption is the best one. Can't conclusively prove the climate will change? Then it will definitely stay the same.

This fundamental misconception is what leads people to believe that constantly attempting to shoot holes in various parts of the assembled evidence of man-made climate change is somehow proving their case. They can't put together their own theory; they lack the necessary skill, but they know they don't like the theory we currently have, so they constantly attack it. And because they're not building an alternative theory, they don't need to stand by anything they say. You can refute 99 pieces of ill-considered nonsense and it won't matter, they'll just post up piece 100 as though nothing has happened. There's always more shit to be added to the pile, after all. This Economist article documents the problem very well:

So, after hours of research, I can dismiss Mr Eschenbach. But what am I supposed to do the next time I wake up and someone whose name I don't know has produced another plausible-seeming account of bias in the climate-change science? Am I supposed to invest another couple of hours in it? Do I have to waste the time of the readers of this blog with yet another long post on the subject? Why? Why do these people keep bugging us like this? Does the spirit of scientific scepticism really require that I remain forever open-minded to denialist humbug until it's shown to be wrong? At what point am I allowed to simply say, look, I've seen these kind of claims before, they always turns out to be wrong, and it's not worth my time to look into it?

The article also makes the point that the kind of people who constantly pump out these fetid pieces of idiocy are taking pieces of research they are not qualified to understand and attempting to disprove them by sticking data in Excel and hoping they can muddle through. Somehow, the idea has arisen that understanding less statistics makes one's argument more convincing. Just as the lunatics over at Conservapedia are convinced Biblical translations will be more accurate if it's done by people who don't know how to translate, the deniers are convinced that the only way to disprove the consensus on climate science is to analyse that science without actually having the necessary comprehension. Of course, the "spirit of scientific scepticism" means that attempts must be made to check the argument, just in case this time someone miraculously has put together a compelling case, rather than just cherry-picking data or deliberately misunderstanding the current theory. While that's being done, though, Mr Who-Needs-A-PhD-When-You-Have-Excel can crank out more nonsense. Without an actual theory, they have no need to tie their points together into a hole, and the dissection of each argument makes no difference whatsoever to how aggressively they'll assert their next argument when it comes along. For each post like the one discussed in the link above that is torn down, two more will spring up to take its place. It's like a bullshit hydra.

None of this is to ignore the possibility that we might be wrong on climate change. The arguments that scientists are conspiring are obviously ludicrous, but the idea that certain theories become so entrenched that group-think makes them hard to shift even when they need shifting is less difficult to entertain, even if I don't believe that that's what is happening. Again, though, even if we do find something that forces us to fundamentally question our current thinking, we will need to create a new theory to replace the current one. It will not be good enough simply to say "This hasn't worked, so we'll just assume nothing will ever change." Because that isn't science. It's sticking your fingers in your ears and hoping the next time people smarter than you start talking, it won't scare you quite so much.

[1]The fact that the same people can make both arguments simultaneously with a straight face is pretty direct evidence of their mendacity. Arguing that we must be at either one end of a scale or the other and cannot be in the middle, there is something very badly wrong with your basic thinking skills.


Tomsk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tomsk said...

The only good thing to come out of this business is a very rare correct use of the suffix "-gate": denoting an illegal break-in organised by a shadowy reactionary movement trying to undermine a political process which is now unstoppable. Not sure if the people who coined 'climategate' had this in mind though...