Asymmetric behaviours in climate debates


James Hoggan’s Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming neatly expresses a key assymmetry that arises in debates between those supporting and those questioning the consensus view that climate change is primarily being cause by human greenhouse gas emissions:

When it comes to staking out positions and shifting the middle ground, industry-funded strategists seem to have seized and kept the strategic initiative. Any time anyone on the science side makes even the smallest overstatement, they immediately face the full resources of a think tank echo chamber attack. And because conscientious scientists are so quick to recognize and acknowledge when something is not exactly correct, the attackers have won many apologies, corrections, or reinterpretations, which they have used to argue that all of climate science is frail and uncertain.

At the same time, the more exuberant deniers have often said things that were flat-out wrong, and then have refused to acknowledge or apologize for their misrepresentations. In response the environmental community – lacking both the resources and sense of common purpose more typical of the antiscience crowd – has been ineffective in launching countercriticism. (p. 130 paperback)

This is certainly something we have seen in discussions here. Deniers like Dan Pangburn trot out arguments that have been factually or logically rebutted over and over, while hammering at minor components of arguments being made by others. When people dutifully rebut them again, it may provide the false sense that a meaningful debate is still ongoing.

Of course, there are plenty of other circumstances in which we legitimately hold one side of a conflict to higher standards. Scientists should not stoop to the level of denying their mistakes. That said, it does seem appropriate to draw attention to this asymmetry as evidence of how one side of this debate is fighting dirty.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

15 thoughts on “Asymmetric behaviours in climate debates”

  1. It’s propaganda (denialists) vs. fact. In absence of a powerful, trusted mediator/judge, liars always have the upper hand.

    Ian Plimer exposed as a fraud

    “Ian Plimer’s performance in his debate with Monbiot has to be seen to be believed.
    Rather than admit to making any error at all, Plimer ducks, weaves, obfuscates, recites his favourite catch phrase, tries to change the subject and fabricates some more. When confronted with the fact that the USGS says (backed with scientific papers) that human activities emit 130 times as much CO2 as volcanoes, Plimer claims that the USGS doesn’t count underwater volcanoes.

    When told that the USGS specifically said that they do count undersea volcanoes, Plimer invented a story about how the nature of the rocks under the ocean proves that there must be unobserved emissions. Needless to say, this is not acceptable conduct for a scientist.”

  3. “It kicked off with a general discussion about Copenhagen, climate denial and, of course, the hacked emails. Plimer described the contents of the Climatic Research Unit’s emails as “the biggest scientific fraud in history.”

    I replied that, though I deplore some of the behaviour revealed by the emails, Ian is a fine one to talk about scientific fraud: his book is filled with fabrications. He continues to restate facts after they have been shown to be wrong. For example, he keeps maintaining that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than humans. The US Geological Survey (USGS) reports that human beings produce 130 times as much CO2 as volcanoes(6).

    Tony Jones took up my charge and asked Plimer whether he stood by his claim that volcanoes produce more CO2 than all the world’s cars and industries.

    Plimer replied “I’m very heartened that a journalist is correcting me on my geology”, then launched into a disquisition on how I know nothing about science. Both of us pressed him to answer the question. So Plimer said that neither of us had read his book. We both replied that we had and pressed him again.

    Plimer tried to argue that the US Geological Survey only measured emissions from terrestrial volcanoes – not from submarine volcanoes. Jones, who had plainly done his homework, pointed out that a UK journalist (I think he was referring to the Guardian’s James Randerson) had gone back to the USGS and asked them whether or not submarine volcanoes were included in its calculations. They were.

    Plimer went off at a tangent, starting to list the numbers and kinds of submarine volcanoes. This, I soon found, was a characteristic tactic: when faced with a tricky situation, he starts throwing out random facts. I pointed out that he had been told many times that the USGS figures include submarine volcanoes: he was making a claim on national television that he knew to be wrong. “

  4. In absence of a powerful, trusted mediator/judge, liars always have the upper hand.

    This is certainly one of the reasons why climate change denial remains so prevalent: people don’t trust scientific or political institutions anymore.

  5. Scientists ‘losing climate fight’

    A leading Australian climate change scientist says experts are losing the fight against sceptics, who are distorting the science of global warming.

    Professor Pitman was a lead author on the IPCC’s 2001 and 2007 reports. He is also the co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.

    Professor Pitman says sceptics have used the IPCC’s error to skew the climate change debate.

    “Climate scientists are losing the fight with the sceptics,” he said.

    “The sceptics are so well funded, so well organised. “They have nothing else to do. They don’t have day jobs so they can put all their efforts into misinforming and miscommunicating climate science to the general public, whereas the climate scientists have day jobs and [managing publicity] actually isn’t one of them.

    “All of the efforts you do in an IPCC report is done out of hours, voluntarily, for no funding and no pay, whereas the sceptics are being funded to put out full-scale misinformation campaigns and are doing a damn good job, I think.

    “They are doing a superb job at misinforming and miscommunicating the general public, state and federal governments.”

    And he says if scientists lose the climate change debate, it would be “potentially catastrophic”.

    “If this was academic debate over some trivial issue [it wouldn’t matter],” he said.

    “But this isn’t. This is absolutely a fundamental problem for the Earth that we desperately needed full-scale international action on a decade ago.

    “We are now 10 years too late to stop some of the major impacts that we will see and have seen as a consequence of global warming. It is not a future problem, it is a problem here today, around us.”

    Professor Pitman has accused sceptics of failing to base their arguments on the facts.

    “Most of the climate sceptics, particularly those that are wandering around publicly at the moment, don’t base their arguments on science,” he said.

    “They have probably never read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report; they aren’t writing papers in peer-reviewed literature.

    They don’t update their arguments when their arguments are shown to be false, so they’ll have no problem at all using this ammunition inappropriately and out of context to further their aims in exactly the same way as people did when they were trying to disprove the relationship between smoking and human health.”

  6. The last little while has been awfully depressing. The whole world seems to be saying: “Look at these minor errors in major climate science publications! We had better give more credence to the band of sceptics that never withdraw a faulty argument, and who cannot come up with a coherent alternative explanation.”

  7. “It has now been independently confirmed, by multiple persons, that my results regarding the impact of station dropout on global temperature are correct. Your claims, in your document with Joe D’Aleo for the SPPI, are just plain wrong. …

    If you have any honor at all, you’ll set the record straight. You owe it to everyone, and especially to NOAA, to admit that you were wrong. And you certainly owe it to NOAA to apologize. You need to make a highly visible, highly public admission of error, and apology, for using falsehoods to accuse others of fraud.”

  8. “The longer this goes on, the better it will be for all those who take science seriously. Lord Monckton is digging his hole ever deeper, and dragging down into it everyone stupid enough to follow him. Those of us who do battle with climate change deniers can’t inflict one tenth as much damage to their cause that Monckton wreaks every time he opens his mouth.

    He has now answered the devastating debunking of his claims published by the professor of mechanical engineering John Abraham with a characteristically bonkers article(2). It conforms to the cast iron rules of climate change denial, which are as follows:

    1. Falsely accuse the other person of ad hominem attacks, while making vicious ad hominem attacks of your own.

    2. Ignore or gloss over the most substantial criticisms.

    3. Never admit that you are wrong. Even when your errors are staring you in the face, do not acknowledge them. Never apologise, never concede. This is the crucial difference between scientists and charlatans. True scientists welcome challenges to their work, admit their mistakes and seek to refine and improve their hypotheses in the light of them. Charlatans raise the volume and denounce the people who expose their errors. Or they quietly drop their claims, without ever acknowledging that they were wrong, and replace them with a new set of implausible assertions.

    4. Project your worst characteristics onto your opponent.”

  9. Scientists Cut Greenland Ice Loss Estimate By Half

    “A new study on Greenland’s and West Antarctica’s rate of ice loss halves the estimate of ice loss. Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the study takes into account a rebounding of the Earth’s crust called glacial isostatic adjustment, a continuing rise of the crust after being smashed under the weight of the Ice Age. ‘We have concluded that the Greenland and West Antarctica ice caps are melting at approximately half the speed originally predicted,’ said researcher Bert Vermeeersen.”

  10. Sea-level rise: Ice-sheet uncertainty – pp596 – 597

    David H. Bromwich & Julien P. Nicolas


    Gravity measurements of the ice-mass loss in Greenland and Antarctica are complicated by glacial isostatic adjustment. Simultaneous estimates of both signals confirm the negative trends in ice-sheet mass balance, but not their magnitude.

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