Tag Archives: scepticism

Climate, scepticism and conspiracy

ecologistEcologist cartoon, from article about the 1972 Stockholm UN Conference on the Human Environment (vol.2, no.10, p.9)

Everyone has a friend who thinks global warming is just a big conspiracy to put up taxes and tell you what to do. Maybe you’re one of those friends yourself.

You are in a minority if so, at least nationally (and internationally) speaking. You might well be friends with other people who share that view, so it’d be normal with certain groups. Climate scepticism is complex and variable – and usually an awful lot more than a conspiracy theory – but the majority of people believe climate change is real. To take one recent survey of the UK public, only 13% felt climate change was not happening. That study cites others if you fancy digging around for more. Try Eurobarometer or Pew, for example.

Still, the conspiracy idea is common enough that the old USA Today cartoon “what if it was a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?” has become a depressing cliché of PowerPoint presentations on environmental issues. Most people may not take the conspiracy theories seriously, but many who work in climate communication and policy still find the view significant enough to bother pointing and laughing (or better, actually worry and think about).

I saw a talk a few months ago from Kevin Anderson which turned the usual climate change conspiracy theory on its head. You can watch a video of an almost identical talk Anderson gave at the University of Bristol last year (there’s also a pdf transcript there). He suggested many scientists and policy-makers  routine underplay their public statements on climate change; doing what many sceptics accuse them of, but in reverse. The 2 degree target so often referred to in climate policy discussions is not consistent with science, he argued, and scientists should be standing up and saying so. Anderson isn’t suggesting that scientists sat secretly planning to keep people in the dark, all in the pay of [insert your own bogeyman] (he did apply the Chatham House rule at one point, but I wouldn’t read too much into that, sometimes bits of secrecy is necessary as part of the course of opening up truths). More simply, his point is that forms of understatement have become an unchallenged part of the course for much discourse on climate targets.

Anderson’s no crank. I trust him. But that doesn’t mean I simply believe him. I also trust many of the people he is complaining about too. And so I doubt him and them. I’m confused. I think this a pretty normal state of affairs to be in. But it’s disorientating too.

Doubt is a powerful thing, whoever casts it or why, especially in complex societies like ours which run on large amounts of trust. Sociologists talk about “civil inattention” as a way in which we “do modernity”; simply bracket off and ignore interacting with large parts of our lives just to get on with them. This can quickly unravel at times of crisis though. We trusted, for example, that food labeled beef came from cows, not horses, until that particular scandal broke. Most of us probably didn’t bother to even think that that there were institutions put in place that regularly check that the food we eat is what it says it is, or that such bodies had been struggling with threats of cuts, or that we’ve been doing this kind of gradually more institutionalised checking of the validity of food for hundreds of years. We had other things to worry about. We can see similar patterns of the breaking down of trust with BSE, libor and a host of other topics we’ve relied on technical expertise and found it wanting.

Scepticism can be very positive. Indeed, it powers a lot of scientific work: “Nullius in Verba” and all that (take no one’s word for it, the Royal Society’s motto). People even take up scepticism as a form of hobby, with networks of “sceptics in the pub” meetings. In a recent speech at the Royal Society, Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, used this idea of science’s inherent sceptism as a basis for arguing it’s strength: “Good science is questioning, sceptical, analytical – testing theories and understanding risks. Two hundred years of good science – teasing out uncertainties, considering risk – has laid the foundation of what we now understand. It screams out from decade upon decade of research”.

However, doubt can also make science vulnerable, especially when combined with the everyday inattention most people give the details of scientific expertise. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway show in their book Merchants of Doubt, the natural uncertainty at heart of science has been deliberately amplified by the tobacco and petrol industries. As this short video on the topic argues, it was assumed the public can’t understand the complex nature of climate science (or tobacco’s link to cancer) so it would be relatively easy to convince them the scientists don’t know either (and that without “sound” solid science, it would be wrong to take preventative measures).

Back to Professor Anderson’s suggestion of a sort of alternative conspiracy theory. A paper in the journal Global Environmental Change potentially provides some depth to this (write up without paywall at Skeptical Science). Contrary to the oft-made criticism that climate scientists are alarmist, they argue that many seemed to err on the side of least drama. The researchers stress that restraint is a community norm in science, leading many scientists to be cautious, understated and moderate in their public statements. They also recount ways in which there may have been an extra “chill” exerted on climate scientists due to dogged actions from sceptics. As the paper concludes, in attempting to avoid drama, the scientific community may actually be biasing their own work in a way.

Roger Pielke Jr reviewed this paper rather unfavorably, laughing at its faux-science approach of referring to “erring on the side of least drama” as “ESLD”, like it’s a disease, chemical or something similarly intricate. Moreover, Pielke argues their methodology for proving that scientists were under-dramatising was less than robust. I agree with much of Pielke’s critique, but I don’t think this issue is easy to garner evidence on, and I don’t think Pielke has any robust evidence it is not happening either. Considering what scientists such as Anderson (and others mentioned in that paper, notably James Hason) have to say, I think it’s worth studying further.

Anderson and the people behind the “erring on the side of least drama” paper might well be wrong, but I think it’s worth asking more questions here. Scepticism about the workings of science is a good thing, as long as it’s not lazy or driven unreflexively by ideology. As philanthropist Jeremy Grantham wrote in Nature last year, overstatement may well often be very dangerous, especially for scientific careers, but when it comes to climate change understatement is even riskier, even unethical.

This was first published in the March edition of Popular Science UK. Visit their Facebook page to register for 3 free issues.

Boo to Woo

I really, really, dislike the word “woo”.

I don’t mean it as in “to woo a fair maiden”, though that’s a bit weird too. No, I mean the term used by some communities of sceptics (the science-y ones) to refer to ideas which seem to be based on very flimsy evidence or are rooted in a belief in supernatural forces of some sort. It is short for “woo-woo”, as in the noise you might make when jokingly referring to ghosts.

Woooooooo, spoooookeeeeey. If you want a fuller description, there is an entry on the skeptic’s dictionary.

The fact that I feel I need to start by explaining the word is a big part of the problem. It’s slang. It’s jargon. It’s code between a group of friends. Above all, it’s a word that’s used in a loose, ill-defined way to talk about people other than those using it. It’s exclusionary, used about an amorphous “them” and just a bit too vague for my liking. What has the woooooo of a cartoonish ghost got to do with, for example, GM policy?

If it’s not obvious already, it’s also a derogatory term, one that I think unfairly trivialises critique of science. It’s used to shut people up. Now, there are many (many, many, many…) people I personally wish would simply stfu on the subject of science and technology, but I also think critique of science and technology is often useful and/ or entirely understandable and know that my view is just my view, others have theirs. Maintaining a culture where people feel scared to talk about how they feel or what they think about science (or, perhaps worse, are alienated from interacting with the scientific community so they talk amongst themselves) really isn’t going to do anyone any favours. Moreover, when I do want people to shut up about science and technology, I like to think I have an argument more focused and intellecually rigourous than making wooooo noises.

While I’m on the subject of terms I don’t like, I’ll repeat my dislike of calls for scientific literacy, echo Jack Stilgoe’s argument against anti-science and point out to anyone who wants to blithely use the word Luddite that it’s a lot more complicated than simply being anti-technology (this is great on the Luddites, but sadly behind the Nature paywall, there’s a pretty good Comment is Free piece though). These are terms used to articulate and reinforce a boundary around who is allowed to speak about science and technology, and who is not. They are also simplistic and, all too often, simply inaccurate.

If you’re frustrated by what seems to be someone’s lack of scientific understanding or unjustified belief in an alternative view, contribute knowledge, listen to try to find out where they are coming from and explain why you disagree. If it’s mendacious, show people how and why precisely. Share your cleverness with the world, don’t try to intimidate people with it.

Saying no to intolerance

Last week, I found myself pulled into a load of email exchanges on the  topic of John Beddington (UK’s Chief Scientific Adviser). I thought I might as well turn this correspondence into a blogpost.

Why all this talk? If you missed it, Research Fortnight ran a story repeating remarks Beddington had made to a meeting of civil servants earlier in the month:

We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of racism. We are grossly intolerant, and properly so, of people who [are] anti-homosexuality… We are not – and I genuinely think we should think about how we do this – grossly intolerant of pseudo-science, the building up of what purports to be science by the cherry-picking of the facts and the failure to use scientific evidence and the failure to use scientific method.

Context: this was in a (semi) private meeting. I don’t think we should hold Beddington too tightly to these words word as they were not necessarily designed to be public, and it’s noticable that he’s been careful not to repeat them since. Still, a fair bit of cheerleading in response was public (from people I respect, I might add) and this worried me more than Beddington’s remarks themselves, even if others such as Andy Stirling, Frank Swain and a Research Fortnight editorial noted caution.

Personally, I was quite shocked by the quote above. I didn’t feel comfortable with a comparison with racism and homophobia, and didn’t think it was appropriate for people to say ‘hear hear to all that’ in response. I wonder what victims of racist or homophobic attacks feel about this. I know scientists do suffer forms of attacks by, for example, animal rights protesters, and that many have felt quite severally bullied by climate change deniers. I have a huge amount of sympathy with them, but I’m not sure it’s comparable.

Moreover, simply expressing intolerance of something – even building rules to formalise this intolerance – won’t make it go away. Racist attacks are illegal, and yet they still happen.

Most of all, I worried that Beddington’s remarks lost a feel for what draws people to believe in ‘pseudo-science’, and I worry that a rhetoric of intolerance risks alienating the very people who’s attention he wants to capture. Beddington may well have meant to direct intolerance at those who peddle ‘pseudo-science’ rather than those who follow them, but these aren’t easy lines to draw. This isn’t to deny the problems which inspired Beddington’s outburst (or the frustrations which led people to say ‘OMG, yes!’ and pass it on); just that this isn’t the best way to deal with them.

Scientists have incredibly important things to say, and there are some really dangerous people out there, which is precisely why these messages have to be crafted well. If you want a slightly more constructively voiced stridency on the part of scientists, maybe try recent calls from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, or Paul Nurse (or Beddington himself, with a slightly different tone).

I’m all for scientists standing up for themselves, their evidence and their ideas. However, I don’t think preaching intolerance is the way to do this. Rather than simply demanding respect, I suspect the scientific community would be better served calling for greater funding for education and public engagement activities. Build trust and mobalise grass roots activism, don’t retreat to top-down declarations of authority.