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Wobbly

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Let me say immediately that I don’t doubt that Planet Earth is on its way out. I couldn’t be more gloomy about its future. I’m also not much of a fan of Clive James, in fact I was involved in an angry lunchtime argument with him on the subject of Iraq and what he called ‘the triumph of Democracy’ the last time I saw him, some years ago.

I am, on the other hand, constantly interested in how I can know whether what I read and hear is reliable. I couldn’t for example put my hand on my heart and say that my belief that climate change is irreversible is based on anything very much more substantial than a tendency to trust in the green and the left, and the fact that I know from history and experience that human beings are inclined to do what they want to do until they use up the ability to do it. I’m certainly not equipped to verify the scientific arguments for or against climate change. I can’t do the maths. In much the same way, I ‘believe’ in Darwinian evolutionary theory, which, although I’ve read a good deal on the subject, I’m only minimally able to verify for myself. Ditto the link between cigarettes and lung cancer. I read the reports and assume the science is right, but the truth is I don’t really know.

In the Guardian, George Monbiot berates Clive James speaking on Radio 4 about scepticism for saying: ‘the number of scientists who voice scepticism [about climate change] has lately been increasing’. Monbiot comments: ‘He presented no evidence to support this statement and, as far as I can tell, none exists.’

Monbiot also presents no evidence to support his refutation. As far as he can tell, he says, James is wrong. He needs only to ‘look at the quality of the evidence on either side of this media debate, and the nature of the opposing armies – climate scientists on one side, right-wing bloggers on the other’. Scientists = quality and correct, sceptics = right-wing, bloggers and wrong. Really? Just the two armies, big brains v. knuckleheads?

But it seems the real problem with Clive James is that he’s old. Climate change denying in America is on the up, Monbiot tells us, and the majority of climate change deniers are in their sixties and older, accroding to a report from the Pew Research Centre. Monbiot agrees: it ‘chimes with’ his experience. It’s pretty obvious, he says, that the old folk refuse to believe the truth of climate change because we have no investment in the future, we were brought up in a period of technological optimism, and we feel plain entitled to fly around the world like there’s no tomorrow – well, like there will be tomorrow.

But it’s even worse than just having an atrophied view of the world. Monbiot has discovered a ‘fascinating corner of human psychology’: people can’t face thinking about death. A cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, in 1973 theorised that:

When people are confronted with images or words or questions that remind them of death they respond by shoring up their worldview, rejecting people and ideas that threaten it, and increasing their striving for self-esteem.

A biologist, Janis L. Dickinson, suggested that ‘some people might respond to reminders of death by increasing consumption. Dickinson proposes that growing evidence of climate change might boost this tendency, as well as raising antagonism towards scientists and environmentalists.’

And so Monbiot brings us back to Clive James and the rest of us ancients:

is it fanciful to suppose that those who are closer to the end of their lives might react more strongly against reminders of death? I haven’t been able to find any experiments testing this proposition, but it is surely worth investigating. And could it be that the rapid growth of climate change denial over the last two years is actually a response to the hardening of scientific evidence? If so, how the hell do we confront it?

Yes, quite fanciful. So many question marks, and even George Monbiot has failed to find any evidence for his proposition. I can’t say I’ve ever felt more suspicious of my rather automatic readings and acceptance about climate change than after reading Monbiot’s wobbly article. From one comment by one elderly commentator, we arrive, via some ‘proposals’, at a spurious generational argument and are asked to consider how to deal with this problem.  Well, you are – I’m well past the age of reason. But bear in mind that at 46 (even accepting his assumption that I’m closer to death than he is – live every day as if it were your last, I say) George Monbiot has only got another fifteen years or so before he’ll about-turning and racing in the other direction, screaming: ‘There is no death, I am immortal.’ Just like I do.

Comments on “Wobbly”

  1. Imperialist says:

    I’m an enormous Clive James fan, but his article was rubbish. Monbiot’s article was even more rubbish but generally correct.

    Camille Paglia questions climate change and the link between HIV and Aids. That doesn’t make you Galileo; it makes you a nut job.

    As so often, see Ben Goldacre: http://www.badscience.net/2005/11/comment-the-mmr-sceptic-who-just-doesnt-understand-science/

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Science, like so much else, is very much about trust. Researchers by and large have to trust each other, and the general public by and large have to trust the researchers. There’s a good account of what can happen when that trust breaks down here.

      Monbiot’s absurd assertion that there’s a link between climate change denial, old age and the unconscious fear of death is about as well supported as the claims of a link between MMR and autism. The problem with Monbiot’s article, as Jenny Diski says, is that its crankiness may well incline people to distrust the other things he says. If he wants people to trust the science — and for all our sakes he’s right to want that — he’d do well to stop promulgating pseudoscientific nonsense.

      • Imperialist says:

        Because I’m young and therefore flippant and distracted, I didn’t make myself clear.

        I meant Monbiot is correct that the evidence supports climate change and that the scientific consensus is that the evidence supports climate change (and, crucially, the scientific consensus is that the evidence supports climate change because the evidence supports climate change).

        My point was that it’s tempting to see one’s scepticism as revolutionary and to see the counter-revolution as the machinations of people with vested interests. That’s particularly dangerous when there really are vested interests that can be used distract from the real issues. (Yes, pharmaceutical companies have a dubious relationship to the marketing of anti-retrovirals, but that doesn’t make Matthias Rath the saviour of Africa.)

        Of course, it gets tricky. I imagine Monbiot’s readers are smart enough to read him critically, but I agree his piece was irresponsible. Still, where do you draw the line?

        Many would consider evolutionary psychology as hard as the next science. The fact that others dispute this is a sign of science’s virtue rather than the opposite.

        But how do you communicate this to a general audience without discrediting the scientific method?

        The debates over EP show the kind of the positive scepticism that James seems to think he was referring to. To be doubtful is not a metascientific position, it’s simply the way science is done.

  2. John Beattie says:

    It isn’t quite as tough as Jenny Diski suggests. There are a fair number of sources which are aimed at describing the issues accurately but without requiring heavy-duty technical knowledge. For example, there is Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. There are popular science rags such as New Scientist. It is not difficult to look on the web for pictures of substantial pieces of ice which have broken off the main sheets. Likewise for reports of melting of the Greenland ice cap. On the subject of sustainable consumption of energy, read http://www.withouthotair.com/ , which is likewise aimed at informing the general public.

    On a more general level, though, Diski raises a very large problem. How is she, how is anyone, to tell what to believe? Science teaching in schools does not help because you are simultaneously told that science proceeds by careful investigation of hypotheses and, at the same time, it is made abundantly clear that you must take as fact what you are told.

    This wouldn’t matter so much if it was just a matter of watching NASA send satellites to orbit Saturn. It doesn’t even matter in the case of construction of nuclear bombs. In both cases lots of people did the job they were paid to do and there is something distinctly real to have a look at. Where it matters is in questions like lung cancer and global warming.

    With lung cancer, we could live through a human generation or so and check whether it does indeed look like smoking causes cancer. Lots of gossip, speculation and a slow process of general acceptance. All very human and fine.

    With global warming, we are in fact going to live through it in more or less the same way: lots of debate (aka speculation and uninformed comment) less arctic ice, more storms and very possibly higher sea levels. We will adapt to these, likely with some loss of life, possibly with some loss of standard of living. On a local level, it is likely that our houses and cars will need a lot more maintenance, if the world’s water keeps on falling out of the sky.

    Likewise with population pressure, we are carrying on as usual and waiting to see who is right. Malthus is usually quoted at this point, together with saying that he predicted doomsday at a population far lower than current. But I think that over-population does not mean doomsday, it means a general reduction in quality of life. Easter Island is sometimes given as an instance of this, arguing that the population deforested the island such that it produced less food. They survived, but less well.

    So, that answer seems to be that we just have to live through it and make up our minds as best we can.

    But compare Hugh Pennington’s blog entry. He points out instances of organisational failure at NASA and in the Meat Hygiene Service and several other places. In each case there was somebody high up the organisational hierarchy who, in the words of one of the reports, ‘failed to check carefully and query what he was signing’. Doubtless the relevant person would say something like, “What am I to do? Lots of people have investigated properly and here is their report. Am I to re-investigate? These people have been properly appointed and have lots of valuable experience, am I to check that they are doing their jobs? Why do I employ them, anyway?”

    There seems to be an unspoken belief that above some point in the hierarchy, the signatures are for form, rubber stamps essentially. And, below that point people can say, “I am just doing my job, it is for the top brass to make the final signature”.

    So, Mr Topbrass is faced with Jenny Diski’s problem: “I am, on the other hand, constantly interested in how I can know whether what I read and hear is reliable.” Of course Mr Topbrass is in a worse case, since he may very well fail even to recognise his problem.

    There are principles, though. Here are a few:

    Lawyers usually ask, “Is there any conflict of interest?”.

    Bernstein and Woodward, “Follow the money”.

    Pennington, “Is there normalisation of deviance?”.

    So I don’t think it is quite as tough as Jenny Diski suggests. I do think it would help to replace Mr Topbrass.

  3. Mike says:

    Monbiot is possibly the deniers’ best friend. He has yet to denounce sceptics as child molesters but it surely is only a matter of time…

    Actually, deniers tend not so much to deny climate change as that the change is caused by human behaviour. Because we know that change has happened in the (very distant) past (e.g Ice Ages) but we have no idea how quickly it happened then, it is difficult – even for an expert, let alone a layperson – to be sure of its cause. Even James Lovelock will only say that it’s “probably” due to human behaviour.

    And even if it is, how do we know it’s not too late already? AFAIK, we don’t. Boris Johnson’s comment that “if Lovelock’s half right we should do whatever he tells us to; if he’s wholly right we should ignore him and enjoy what time we have left” encapsulates the problem.

    Why should there be a consensus on climate change? You might think that the risks of the latest vaccine against the lurgy are worth taking while I don’t – how on earth would anyone determine that you were being rational and I wasn’t?

  4. Camus123 says:

    An excellent piece by Jenny Diski. Monbiot tends to go over the top at times but then Kepler kept himself alive by casting astrological forecasts for wealthy businessmen- surely there are some scientists in America who do the contemporary equivalent and wait to find out what their boss wants them to say. Climate change? Dunno, but then I don’t matter.

  5. orlp says:

    In the 1980s the equivalent to today’s climate change was “acid rain”. Then, as now, there were dire claims made in the name of “The Science”, and sceptics were demonised as fools at best and evil at worst. In particular it was predicted that within 10 years Northern Europe would be denuded of its forests and Scandinavian lakes bereft of any life. In the event, while there was environmental damage, these predictions failed to materialise. In part this was because of the “insufficient” measures taken towards combating the threat, but some of the damage (for instance, the problems in Germany’s Black Forest) turned out to be due primarily to other causes and not to acid rain.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Well, maybe. Though I learned about climate change (or the greenhouse effect as it was then known) at primary school in the 1980s. It’s been mainstream science for over twenty years.

      • Robert Hanks says:

        I’m not quite sure what point orlp is making. Were sceptics saying that acid rain wasn’t a problem at all? It was, and is; but steps were taken to reduce emissions of sulphur (and, as it happened, the UK government had its own reasons for wanting to get rid of coal-fired power generation). Now acid rain isn’t as much of a problem as was feared. I don’t see how that makes environmentalists wrong and sceptics right.

        Re: Clive James – my problem with his Radio 4 talk was his insistence that there is no scientific consensus on climate change. He seemed to want consensus to mean the same thing as unanimity: clearly, scientists aren’t unanimous; but from everything I have read I would say there is a very clear consensus among them.

  6. orlp says:

    I was not really writing to defend Clive James. But there is a minority of serious scientists who do not share the consensus opinion, and my comment concerned the manner in which they are treated.

    As regards acid rain, my point was twofold: firstly the the problem was definitely not as serious as it was presented, and not necessarily due to the causes presented either. For instance, the problems in the Black Forest turned out to be of long standing and due to monoculture and planting trees in swathes, and the problems in the Scandinavian lakes were proved not to have been caused by British emissions.
    Secondly the evidence presented for the problem was skewed with frequent pictures of dead trees and dead fish and no pictures showing healthy stretches of forest. Yes, acid rain was a problem, but not as deadly as it was portrayed. Yet anyone who dared to say so was treated in much the same way that climate change sceptics are treated today. The measures taken across Europe to combat it turned out to be quite sufficient although the green lobby at the time decried them as “inadequate”.

    I do think we have to do something about CO2 emissions, but I do not believe the doomsday reporting we are incessantly bombarded with and I deprecate the moral stance behind it.

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