Conversation with a Scientist (1)

We at Cliscep like The Conversation, the news and analysis blog for University types. Their mixture of “academic rigour and journalistic flair” results in a product much like the Guardian, but the moderation is more humane and you get a better class of troll.

Their articles are written by experts in their fields, and, as their name suggests, they encourage interaction. It doesn’t always work out like that, however. Witness this conversation with marine geologist James Scourse.

His thesis, that the proposal to create a brand new geological epoch called “the Anthropocene” is a “misleading … redundant, manufactured debate… a fad, a bandwagon, a way of marketing research…” has my wholehearted approval, but he spoilt the effect for me by ending his article with: “…other scientists are getting on with the business of trying to understand, and do something, about the crisis we face.”

So I asked him: “what’s the crisis we face?” And he replied: “I suggest you go and read the IPCC…”

Me: What, all 3000 pages? I’ve got AR5 SPM open in front of me, and there’s not one mention of crisis. You’ll have to be a little more explicit, or people might think you’re making it up.

Professor Scourse: Yes, all 3000 pages.

I came back the next day: Done. No mention of crisis. You are making it up. Another one.

Professor Scourse: Gosh, that was fast…

Me: I didn’t read it all last night. We know what’s in it. What’s not in it is a persuasive case for doing something very expensive now to ward off hypothesised dangerous warming in the future, given that 70+ years of CO2 emissions have resulted in little man-made warming so far. Graphs of temperature, sea level rise etc will have to make extraordinary leaps to morph into something worrying. Meanwhile, money that could be used for infrastructure in poor countries will be diverted into subsidising useless windmills. I know this has nothing to do with geology, but it’s wrong.

Professor Scourse: Once the Titanic had struck the iceberg, Captain Smith had at least three choices: 1. he could deny the fact that anything was wrong and stare at the horizon; 2. he could accept that the ship had hit an iceberg, but nevertheless mull things over and decide, perhaps, to give the iceberg a name; or 3. he could try and save as many lives as possible by prompt action. So, even though you think 2 is the wrong option, like me, you’re clearly in camp no.1 whereas I’m in camp no.3.

Me: What iceberg? There is no iceberg. Your parable implies that the world is comparable to the Titanic after it had hit the iceberg. But it isn’t and it hasn’t. I’m not asking for allegories, but science. You’re a scientist. Please give me some.

Mel Tisdale then turned up to support the idea of the Anthropocene and another thread began:

Mel: Anything that highlights the mess we are in gets my vote. We can argue about the niceties later when we have got a grip on the problems Old Mother Nature is currently throwing at us for being naughty.

Caroline Smith: Totally agree Mel. When I’ve used the idea with students it’s like a shock to the system and a huge wake up call.

Professor Scourse: I find presenting the evidence is the best wake up call.

I intervened to point out that Professor Scourse hadn’t presented any evidence.

Caroline Smith: By the way, what sort of evidence should Prof Scourse be presenting in your view? Looking at his credentials he’d seem to know what he’s talking about.

Me: No doubt Professor Scourse knows what he’s talking about, but he’s not talking, at least not to us here. He says: read the IPCC reports. But the IPCC doesn’t talk about crisis. How can it? Its remit is to discuss the science. There is no climate crisis. Will there be? Interpretation of some model results suggest there will, but the models have been falsified by events. We’re left with the message that scientists (some of them) are worried. That’s not science, and it’s not convincing. The whole climate crisis discourse resembles the old Irish joke: You can’t get there from here.

Professor Scourse came back to Caroline Smith to clarify his objection to the term “Anthropocene”:
Professor Scourse: I think the fundamental point here is that I don’t think using the Anthropocene description would make any difference when trying to convince the unconvinced. That too, like the scientific evidence itself, would be a polarising influence.

Me: (barging in uninvited): Could you please explain what you mean by saying that the scientific evidence would be a polarising influence? Scientific evidence, objectively presented, should surely only be a polarising influence in distinguishing those capable of rational thought from the rest. Though not a scientist, I’m an ardent believer in rational discussion, and always keen to listen to scientific evidence.

And that was the last I heard from Professor Scourse, though I did have a polite and interesting discussion with a sclerochronologist colleague of Professor Scourse. The point seems to be that if a professor of marine biology says there’s a crisis, then there is, and that’s it.

We’ve started another conversation with one of Professor Scourse’s colleagues at Bangor University – a lecturer in law, about whether delivering heating oil is like sending Jews to the death camps. But only among ourselves.


  1. Why is it that when a rational request for factual evidence is presented, that people simply say “Read what the IPCC has written” or make vague references to “sea level rise is accelerating and Pacific islands are disappearing” (when we know they are not) or “Look around you. Weather events are more extreme than ever” (when we know that in most cases they haven’t touched 50 years records, let alone 100 year records).

    Why is it so hard to present solid evidence of anything more than moderate warming when they are going on about a crisis. Is there that much faith in climate model projections?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If it is necessary to read all 3000 pages of AR5 to get a sense of the crisis we face, a reasonable suggestion for a blog post is to highlight where the SPM fails to communicate. After all, this is the fifth stab at summarizing the coming apocalypse so the chaps at the IPCC should be quite good at it by now. If they are not able, should they not bring in some help from activist organisations like WWF (as in the past), the World Resources Institute or Greenpeace, which (they tell us) are full of expert communicators.
    Back in my day Professors were also very good a providing clear summaries and key points in their lectures.


  3. In your second ‘conversation’, Tara Smith mentions the Kingsnorth trial as an example of a successful ‘necessity defence’, which I suppose it was in that the jury accepted the defendants’ claim that they had a ‘lawful excuse’ for their actions, to wit that science said that if they hadn’t climbed the chimney and painted the word ‘Gordon’ on it then all sorts of terrible things would happen around the world.

    But one of the expert witnesses* called by the defence misled the jury about what climatologists were saying about the severity of current and future climate change (for example, he doubled the current rate of sea-level rise and said that the current rate of warming was unprecedented in tens of millions of years and that scientists were predicting that ‘by 2013 all Arctic ice will melt during the summer’ – yes, all ice everywhere in the Arctic, not just sea ice and not just at the North Pole, which was the more usual version of that particular scare story), so it’s not a very useful example. I’m sure you can convince a jury of the necessity of just about any unlawful action if you can make them believe a scary enough story about the consequences of lawful inaction – and if your story is false or exaggerated, try invoking the holy name of science. That seems to work. (‘Members of the jury, I shat on the bonnet of my neighbour’s car because I knew that, according to science, a turd so placed would save every badger in the world from a slow and horrible death.’) Succeeding in such a venture would certainly be an example of a successful ‘necessity defence’ but it would mostly exemplify the power of scientism and the gullibility of (misdirected?) juries.

    Incidentally, the other scientific expert called by the defence was James Hansen, who told the jury that building a new coal-fired power plant at Kingsnorth would result in the extinction of 400 species. Hansen doesn’t pluck his numbers out of thin air. Does anyone know how he arrived at 400? I haven’t been able to google his calculation.

    *Geoff Meaden, Green Party activist and recently retired lecturer on cold-water fisheries. He testified via videolink from Brazil, where he was due to give a lecture at a conference on sustainability. His role at (or perhaps ‘at’) the trial in Maidstone, Kent, was to comment on the scientific validity or otherwise of the terrible climate-sciencey things foretold by the defendants if we don’t start acting sustainably. Mostly correct, said the emeritus cold-water fish expert via videolink from balmy Sao Paulo, Brazil.

    **Al Gore is fat.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A very interesting piece and well worth reading the whole of Prof Scource’s article and exchange in The Conversation. It seemed to me Prof Scource was trying to venture a step off the AGW escalator but kept one foot on it to maintain his credibility with the gang/consensus – “the swerve” as Matt Ridley calls it. I suspect underneath all the bluster about the IPCC there is a slight uncertainty that’s nagging away at him.

    As for Tara Smith, “Lecturer at Law”, words fail me. If that is representative of the level and type of thinking that goes on in that field and in that University then it should be given a much wider audience for the sake of all who might be tempted to study there.


  5. I love reading your logical and reason-based conversation with those who apparently aren’t employing the same reason and logic to the conversation, unfortunately. But, like I said, it is rather amusing.


  6. Stop it, Geoff, you’re scaring me now!
    I chuckled as I read your post just as I’ve done with your humorous posts in the past. I thought I was reading something in the vein of ‘Apocalypse Close’ on your blog but, after linking to the Conversation, to my horror, I found out that this was not a parody.

    Scientist that don’t do Science, Lawyers that don’t do Logic, Professors who’ve morphed into Pontificators,; they’re all there in plain sight and it ‘aint a pretty one!

    If there’s a grain of comfort in this post it has to be that the ‘Conversation’ tolerates dissenting opinions; its ‘light-touch’ moderation is admirable and, sadly, all too rare in blogs of its type.

    PS – For those that haven’t ‘Apocalypse Close’, it can be found here; IMO, it’s well worth a read (and a chuckle)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Geoff: ‘ I wondered if this …stuff … would be of interest’. It surely is. I think it is immensely revealing and I think it is well worth recording here, in part because of the risk of deletion elsewhere, and in part because it will give it a larger readership.

    Liked by 1 person

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