Friday, July 03, 2009

Scientific discourse and the climate debate

I've been following the global warming debate fairly closely for several years now. For a number of reasons, I am definitely skeptical about the standard alarming "concensus" predictions. To put it plainly, I remain to be convinced that the claims made really do stand up to scrutiny. For example, climate models are often consistently one or two degrees off the measured absolute temperature, which is why you only see reports of temperature anomalies - departures from some baseline. This, to me, rather flies in the face of glib claims that the models are "just physics". I have other issues with the models, but I don't want to talk about them right now.

What is depressing is the brutal, and in many cases embarrassing, level at which the climate debate is conducted. In any other field of science it is normal to have disagreements. Traditionally when this happens, one side or the other will eventually change their minds either through force of argument ("your logic is unassailable") or through reproducible experiment ("here is uncontrovertible evidence"). The argument may be vigorous, but it's almost never personal: the two sides can still go and enjoy a beer together even though they disagree.

The climate debate does not work this way. Instead of dispassionate argument, deeply unpleasant rhetorical devices are the norm. Here's a list I've observed in common use:
  • Pretend there is no debate. The matter is settled. Anyone who disagrees is either uninformed, deluded, or pushing some nefarious agenda.
  • Dismissing an argument simply because of who advanced it (ad hominem attacks are everywhere).
  • Compare the other side to some unpleasant group: if you disagree, then you're a denialist.
  • Question the intelligence and/or integrity of anyone who is not convinced.
  • Appeal to authority (which is apparently infallible).
  • You are not a climate scientist (and apparently therefore incapable of understanding or criticising any aspect of any climate science work).
  • Withholding of data and/or code so that results cannot be reproduced.
  • Censorship of critical commentary (thereby presenting a one-sided view of the debate).
  • There is a concensus. (I know of no other field where this argument would be advanced with a straight face.)
There are sinners on both sides, but in my experience the vast bulk of the mud slinging comes from the "warmists". Joining any discussion forum on the topic as a skeptic usually requires a strong stomach, a sense of humour, and is likely to leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. What annoys me more than anything else is that the animosity makes it really hard to have a sensible argument: the warmists may well be correct, but they aren't going to convince me using the tactics I listed above.

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