“The Need for Vigorous Debate”

The Need for Vigorous Debate is one of the section headings in Lewandowsky et al.’s latest masterpiece of smears, misleading claims and hypocritical self-contradictions (LMBF). There are so many examples of their lack of self-awareness, including two nicely lampooned in Brad’s recent post: the recommendation to avoid questioning motives, in a paper that does this throughout, and to try to build rapport (“One way of building rapport is to use words like denialist and crank to describe people,” as Brad explains).

The paper is a rich seam that could provide material for dozens of blog posts. This one will focus on their call for debate.

“How can scientists facilitate debate but resist denial?… Public debate and skepticism are essential to a functioning democracy,” declare the self-righteous hypocrites.  And later, “We also believe that the public is entitled to participate in scientific debate.”

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Lewandowsky and Mann show their commitment to public debate by blocking people on Twitter.  The third author, Nick Brown, has a blog post about the article that says very little apart from recounting an anecdote about writing a cartoon jointly with Mark Steyn when they were at school together.  To his credit, he has published many critical comments, but he has now closed the blog discussion, without responding to any of the issues raised or even attempting to answer any of the questions asked, except for one about blog moderation.

LMBF seem to believe that vigorous debate takes place in the academic literature.  But this is complete nonsense. The literature in the field is an echo chamber of circular reasoning, where Brulle, Oreskes, Dunlap and Lewandowsky vigorously agree with themselves and each other (L has cited 15 of his own papers in LMBF—there must be an appropriate term for this kind of behaviour).  Even when critical papers are published, there is no vigorous debate, partly because the process is so glacially slow and partly because criticisms are stifled by academic protocol and the peer review process.

Look, for example, at the effort Ruth Dixon and Jonathan Jones had to go through with their comment on the notorious “Moon hoax” paper by Lewandowsky, Oberauer & Gignac (LOG13) and a related paper by the same authors (LGO13). Their paper was rejected by one journal, then had to be drastically shortened to fit the conditions of the journal that had published LOG13, which also rejected it.  It was revised again, and eventually published despite a review from Lewandowsky et al. calling for it to be rejected.  Worse still, their paper is published alongside a sneering response from LGO (“They fail to recognize…”), giving LGO the last, as well as the first, word.  Note that Lewandowsky et al. were invited by the journal to review the Dixon & Jones paper, but it appears from Ruth’s timeline that D&J did not get to review LGO’s response—an illustration of the double standards employed by the journal. With the publication process this skewed, and gatekeeping so strong, is it any wonder that critics are reluctant to submit papers through the academic peer review system?


But LMBF aren’t alone in calling for a vigorous debate while running away from any opportunity to engage in one.  Promoters of the climate change message often say that we need to have a debate, or a dialogue, about the issue,  but seem oddly reluctant to take part in any such discussion or dialogue. Here are a few other examples of this curious behaviour.

Philippe Sands: Climate change and the rule of law

About a year ago, a conference was held on the theme of “Climate change and the rule of law,” featuring a lecture by Philippe Sands QC, introduced by Lord Carnwath (see discussion at my old blog). “The purpose of this conference is to stimulate such a debate,” said Lord Carnwath. However, debate was not helped by the fact that comments were disabled on the youtube video of the event.  Robin Guenier wrote a careful 9-page response to the lecture, but his attempt to engage Sands in debate received only a two-line acknowledgement.

Donna Laframboise summarised the problem in her blog post Supreme Court Justice Carnwath: Climate Activist:

Ah, yes. That word debate. It means something rather different to climate activists than to normal people.

Chris Rapley – Time for Change

In 2014 Chris Rapley, formerly a climate scientist but these days primarily involved in administration and self-promotion, produced a glossy report on climate science communication called Time for change? Climate Science Reconsidered, which declared that

There is a need for an operational means for the general public and climate scientists to engage in dialogue, and for the provision of a coherent ‘meta-narrative’ of climate science that conveys the big picture and provides the context for discussion of the results, their uncertainties and their implications.

Sadly for Chris, his report went down like the proverbial lead balloon with climate scientists, as reported here, with the call for a coherent meta-narrative coming in for particular ridicule. In this case the call is for a dialogue, as distinct from a debate, but there was little if any explanation of how such a dialogue could be established. Just a few months later, the man who had called for dialogue moved on to presenting a tedious theatrical monologue.

No conversation at “The Conversation”

One of the most inappropriately named web publications is the so-called Conversation, which would be more accurately referred to as The Monologue or The Nonversation. Despite claiming in its charter to be free of political bias, its editors promote university academics who present a uniformly activist, green, Guardianist viewpoint. Questioning this viewpoint leads to comment deletion, or as in the case of Geoff and Brad, being banned from the site completely, as we have discussed previously.

One particularly ironic example of an article where no conversation took place was How psychology can help us solve climate change. Both authors are part of the Oxford Centre for the Study of Intergroup Conflict, and recommend talking to people from an “outgroup” who think differently from you, as a means of reducing such intergroup conflict (see this comment from Geoff and my reply).  An outgroup friend a day keeps the bias away, is their useful advice. Yet neither of them followed their own advice, leaving the outgroup of Geoff, Brad, Kevin and myself talking amongst ourselves. Geoff even tried to engage them in conversation at their own Oxford Practical Ethics blog where the piece was cross-posted, but again to no avail.


This debate that is needed simply isn’t happening, as explained very nicely in the first two minutes of Ian’s video.

As Colin Macilwane said in his thoughtful Nature editorial a few months ago,

We like to talk about ‘engaging the public’, but many scientists really just want to talk at them.


Updates 7 Sept:

More evidence came to light this morning casting further doubt on Lewandowsky’s claimed commitment to vigorous debate, thanks to tweets from Richard Betts and Ruth Dixon. See this,  thisthis and this. It seems that Richard Betts arranged for Ruth Dixon to be invited to take part in this Royal Society event in June 2015 (organised by L, attendees including Richard, Bob Ward, Nick Brown and Warren Pearce), where she might have presented her work mentioned above, which might have led to some vigorous debate. But her invitation somehow disappeared, apparently due to lack of space.

Also, there are two more interesting blog posts on LMBF, one from Don Aitkin, The distinction between true scepticism and denial, and one by Donna Laframboise, Michael Mann’s Peer Review Dogma.

29 thoughts on ““The Need for Vigorous Debate”

  1. The whole paper is very self-righteous. The authors are somehow qualified to set the rules for real debate, how science ought to be done, and how to define legitimate debate vs. harassment. This is not science, its the theology of science ex-cathedra in Arabic by the Mullahs.

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  2. Nicely summed up Paul.

    The paper is a permision, a justification and a warning to scientists, universities and editors not to let anyone in who doesn’t run the gauntlet of peer review. I mean, you might get a guy’s paper retracted. The paper isn’t about communication or debate at all, it’s about keeping the heathens at bay.

    Dr Lew thinks that climate science has been watered down by sceptic attacks. He wan’t to bolster them back up to 2005 strength. It doesn’t occur to him that the ground given to uncertainty is the least they should have been doing.

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  3. LMBF:’When the scientific method yields discoveries that imperil people’s lifestyle or worldviews or impinge on corporate vested interests, the public and political response can be anything but favorable.’

    Lewandowsky has the knack of including truths in his papers yet always getting their application exactly backwards wrt the climate change domain. The scientific method veers ever more to the position that, whether ACO2 eventually turns out to be good, bad, or indifferent, the current certainty of imminent (decades) climate catastrophe (absent drastic emissions reduction), as advocated by authority from presidents and prime ministers on downwards, appears not to be justified. Despite this should be a good or at least hopeful thing, the response from Lewandowsky and many other adherents of climate orthodoxy is anything but favorable. The narrative of certain catastrophe has become too important a part of their worldview, and any challenge to this (from science or otherwise) is resisted at all costs.

    Such resistance is bound to lead to severe contradictions. Like having to promote the high moral principles of scientific exchange because the calamitous narrative itself rests on very the authority of science, yet in reality being unable to acknowledge a true debate or actually engage in this manner because it always results, sooner or later, in awkward questions that acutely threaten their committed worldview. Re-framing the questioners as crazy or liars (the implications of ‘denier’), and hence de-legitimized from the debate anyhow, is the only way out of the dilemma. Striking boldly and often keeps momentum going, but I suspect it’s a tactic with diminishing returns. And even in the best case, this is never going to give a permanent reprieve.

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  4. The authors seem to be listed as Lew, Mann, Brown, Friedman. Hence my references to the paper as LMBF.

    [Ed: Quite right. Corrected throughout.]

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  5. In my own experience of the climate debate, as it is laughingly called by some of us, in a triumph of hope over experience, there are two milestones of note:

    1. The public debate convened by Intelligence Squared in New York on 14th March 2007

    2. Richard Drake and Steven Mosher exposing the desperate measures by then being deployed to deter and if possible eliminate online debate, in August 2011.

    I’ve been know to refer to the first on Twitter, when Bob Ward seemed to need enlightening:

    The YouTube videos still seem to be up. Two days after that hugely enjoyable event, where Richard Lindzen, Philip Stott and Michael Crichton took Gavin Schmidt and team to the cleaners, Steve McIntyre wrote this fascinating reflection:

    In terms of my own position, I would be in the part of the audience that would have entered the hall undecided. I still don’t have an opinion on whether there is a crisis or not. I am still prepared to allow for the possibility that there is a real problem and that one should not be put off by the annoyingness of the Team. The Team has gotten used to ad hom arguments. Here is Team ad homs reduced to its lowest common denominator. The audience must have found this as repugnant as we do.

    They clearly did. And after that it was noticeable that public debate was very much off the menu for consensus enforcers. They shifted their attentions online, with emphasis on the shifty, leading to my reflections with Mosh over four years later. I’ll be happy to provide the rapt audience of CliScep the benefit of those shortly.

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  6. Democracy has lulled people into thinking that the public are fooled by politicians. Ok, some of the time they are and some of the people are fooled all the time but as a result of the information revolution, the majority are a lot more aware of issues than at any other time in history. Voting has now become a ‘best of a bad lot’ decision, rather than a vote for a political ideal. During the Brexit debates, the toughest questions were asked by the public. A great many more issues were never aired. Cameron deliberately rushed the election because he didn’t want the other side to get their act together. The civil service did their very best to prevent the Brexit side having access to the data that proves the EU experiment was causing grief. Political debate is (and perhaps always was) just seen as a way to win, not an opportunity to air the issues. Is that a sensible way to make decisions? More importantly, does it work any more?

    The public know when issues are missing. They know why the politicians are avoiding the questions. No persuasion by Cameron at the last minute could sweep away decades of evidence for what the EU was like. Or indeed his own outrage at what the cheeky EU had thrown at us. He might have thought the pantomime of standing up to the EU worked but when he caved in behind the scenes and gave the EU what it demanded, we knew it. He and his team only had negative reasons for leaving the EU, no good reasons for staying. The older generations had the evidence of their own eyes, how the EU was slowly absorbing democracy. Like a carnivorous plant it offered immediate sweetness but at the same time it dissolved our identity and would eventually consume us.

    And thus it is with the AGW debate. People aren’t as fooled as its elite supporters think. By only telling half the story, they supposedly make the best case for action, but sooner or later the holes in that case appear. When it become apparent that the information for the other side was always available, the public wonder why they weren’t given the full picture to digest. What are they supposed to make of being lied too, even if it was by omission?

    At this point I often think of the scene from A Few Good Men, where Colonel Jessup screams ‘you can’t handle the truth!’

    Perhaps debate is the wrong word. It conjures up arrogant school boy high flyers competing to win a prize or slick lawyers using every dirty trick they can devise. Debate about public issues should be about the right decision, not who wins. When someone asks something difficult, the teams shouldn’t bluster, they should say ‘good question, I don’t know but I’ll find out and publish’. And knowing where knowledge stops and guesswork starts is important. It’s part of the decision making process.

    At this point I can almost hear some warmist whinging ‘but deniers do it too’, but that misses the point. Scientists and governments should be representing the public, not their own personal view point. By and large the sceptics ARE the public. We’re citizens filling in the gaps the authorities are carefully concealing. We are part of the information revolution (suitable word) that is putting power into the hands of the public. No longer are the public pointlessly crying for debate, they’re having it, no, THEM. A million issues are being discussed right now. If the authorities don’t want a seat at the tables, then they can’t complain when the public come to a different conclusion to the one they want to push.

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  7. There will be no vigorous public debate on climate change and its causes; that is not what they intend, or will allow. China and the US have just ratified the COP21 Paris Agreement. The ‘smart energy revolution’ is being rolled out. Wind turbines continue to appear here, there and everywhere. It’s full steam ahead. Until the planet demonstrably cools – if it does – ANY warming will continue to be attributed to CO2 emissions and the bandwagon will just continue to roll on. By the time the wheels fall off, it will probably be too late.

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  8. Tiny, an excellent comment on our politcal system. The establishment in the UK are having to wake up to the reality that the voter now has a voice, each and every one of us. However, the grip of the established dogma in politics as well as climate science will be difficult to break without some fundamental shift in empirical perception.For example; it is difficult to maintain that we’ve never had it so good if 20% of us are unemployed, likewise it is difficult to maintain a warming position with growing ice caps and infrastructure snowed into immobility. Politics is wiser to shifts in public perception perhaps more than we give credit for, mostly because, in the UK at least, we have a healthy multi-party system with differing solutions to society’s issues. So I think politics will quickly adapt to the new norm, lessons will be learnt. After all the goal is always power. But in the climate change establishment it is imperative to maintain alarm in order to maintain wealth. Aside from a sudden advancing ice-sheet it will take time for the political world to wake up to the possibility that they’ve been had. And for the majority of well intentioned liberals to realise that we all care about our environment, but some of us are also interested in truth. I agree with you Jaime to a point, but from the outside I can already see the bandwagon derailing. The more shrill they get, the more they refuse to discuss, the more they twist data both current and historical, the more likely it is wheels will come off sooner. Watch out for the rats leaping overboard, that will be a sure sign of imminent demise, even if Gavin and Michael go down with their ship

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  9. “in the UK at least, we have a healthy multi-party system with differing solutions to society’s issues.”

    Perhaps we used to have, but not for some time we haven’t, unfortunately. Although remembering the 1960s and 1970s culminating in the Winter of Discontent, I’m not sure we had then, either.

    There was a reason why the description “LibLabCon” was applied to the three main parties and why Cameron revelled in the title of ‘Heir to Blair’. Then there was the overweening influence of the Kommissars in Brussels, who had progressively reduced the House of Commons to no more than a rubber stamping office for rulings from their utterly unaccountable over-regulatory bureaucratic machinations.

    Fortunately, the demise of the Lib Dems, Brexit and the imminent self-destruction of the Labour party along the with the rise of UKIP hopefully portend a more balanced political arena with the reconstituted Conservatives representing the centre-left and UKIP the centre-right, with the dead hand of the EU kleptocracy being a thing of the past.

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  10. Thanks Catweazle, my point (probably badly put) was that we do now seem to have a multi-party system where even the fringe parties are now heard. I grew up in a 2 and a bit system, Conservative, Labour and a few Liberals. Parliament was represented by the two main parties, a smattering of liberals and the parties of Northern Ireland. Today, we have a green, a UKIPper, Plaid Cymru the SNP as the 3rd largest party and… a smattering of liberals. It means that whatever your politics, your noise will generally be heard and feature in debate. I agree the Labour party is set to implode and I wouldn’t be surprised to see two parties emerge from it. It seems to me that our parliament, despite its voting system, is slowly starting to reflect the voters. It seems Mr Corbyn has all but guaranteed a potential 15 years of a Tory administration but nonetheless the role of the voter has changed and they are more powerful now than at any time I can remember. Emancipated mostly by social media. Of course, it may not be ideal to getting things done but it can be argued to being more democratic. That’s the problem with democracy, those one disagrees with get a platform, even power. Whereas, in climate science, those who dispute the “consensus” orthodoxy are excluded, ridiculed, insulted, threatened and denied access.Indeed to the point when they withdraw: Roger Pielke Jr a case in point.

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  11. Paul: Thanks, I think it was a key moment, as I’ve said. Before that the ‘debate’ in 2005 between Richard Lindzen and Sir John Houghton in front of the House of Lords Economic Affairs committee that Nigel Lawson helped to convene was a key juncture in my own understanding. (I’d been a sceptic since talking to some exploration geologists around 1993 but was pretty uninformed.) Despite Houghton being the evangelical Christian I realised as I read the transcripts that I trusted Lindzen‘s judgment far more. Meanwhile of course McIntyre and McKitrick had published in the ‘peer-reviewed literature’ in 2003 and were surprised to be rubbished in a blog – RealClimate. The unjust way comments were moderated in that little walled garden I think led to a massive sense of over-confidence from Gavin Schmidt leading up to the disastrous (for The Team) public debate in New York in March 2007. Steve had set up Climate Audit precisely as a reaction to the unjust treatment at RealClimate. How blog debates developed from there is a truly fascinating story of science, technology and sociology. I’ll try and add some more on that later today.

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  12. As well as the avoidance of discussion, a related phenomenon is the pseudo-discussion, where green activists pretend to be having a debate or discussion while in reality engaging in what I refer to in regard to the peer-reviewed literature above – vigorously agreeing with each other.

    Exhibit A: Tonight, Attitude and atmosphere, a “discussion” involving climate artist Emily Parsons-Lord, Lewandowsky and Pancost at the Cabot Institute

    Exhibit B: Tomorrow, What can I do about climate change anyway? another “discussion”, participants not clear but apparently it involves Adam Corner and his colleague Lorraine Whitmarsh.

    Exhibit C: Climate activist Eric Holthaus has set up something called “Ourwarmregards” which aims to “create a dialogue” with journalists and climate scientists who agree with him.

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  13. Emily has been flown over from Sydney – watch that carbon footprint Emily… hew artwork – Bad Air.

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  14. Apparently there was a good congregation at the Cabot Institute’s discussion in Bristol.

    Barry, that is worrying news that she’s flown all the way from Australia. I hope she has bought carbon offsets and isn’t feeling too guilty.

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  15. Paul, it’s an important point about non-debate debates, reminding me of “Has the media failed science?” at Imperial College which I attended in February 2011. I did a write-up for Bishop Hill with this in the first paragraph:

    There were more serious flaws, the biggest of which was that the debate was not a debate. It was a media love-fest, as one of the audience rightly said in the Q&A.

    I think this experience (which I’ve never repeated – in other words I’ve never been to anything like this again) deserves to sit with the two incidents mentioned earlier in the development of my own grasp of the ‘climate debate’. We are going to need to deploy Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ and ‘Ministry of Love’ on this aspect of the climate sham.

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  16. Richard thanks for the reminder of that one.
    Here’s another example of the “media love-fest” from the OurWarmRegards team, Eric Holthaus, Jacqueline Gill, Andy Revkin and special guest Katharine Hayhoe! Strong stomach required. I could only stand 3 minutes of it.

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  17. Richard Drake says: 06 Sep 16 at 2:13 pm

    “We are going to need to deploy Orwell’s ‘Ministry of Truth’ and ‘Ministry of Love’ on this aspect of the climate sham.”

    Cant we just pay Brad to do the written word “Ministry of Silly Walks Full Sketch”. on Climate? Then the whole things resolves into only WAIT WHAT?

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  18. Re your update (7 Sept): Yes, I was invited to attend Lewandowsky’s meeting, though not to present a talk. The meeting was ‘invitation only’ for all attendees, not just the speakers. I was on the mailing list (about 30 names) for a number of emails from Stephan Lewandowsky, detailing his plans for the meeting and his application to the Royal Society for funding. The last one that I received (May 2014) said: “Dear all, please see below for final confirmation of dates for next year’s Royal-Society sponsored meeting. I am very happy with those dates and will advise the RS accordingly. Please mark those final dates in your diaries.”

    I don’t know when I was removed from that list. We think Lewandowsky was sent our Comment to review around September 2014.

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  19. Ah yes, Jacquelyn Gill, Katharine Hayhoe’s “favourite paleo-ecologist”. Not hard to see why. They make a good team. Both really don’t like debating sceptics with something sensible to say and would rather block than have to answer inconvenient questions. Hayhoe says on FB that CO2 is an “extremely potent” greenhouse gas. So to my mind, she is either plain stupid or lying. I think I can guess which.

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  20. Katharine Hayhoe 6 hours ago

    ” Listen here”

    Why do you think that any sane person would ever listen to you?

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  21. I have yet to comment on the LMBF paper as it is so rich in dross I did not know where to start. I will concentrate on a single statement.

    Within the scientific community, there is a pervasive consensus that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions….but outside science there is entrenched denial of this fact in some sectors of society

    The comment is highly ambiguous.

    1. Who is the “scientific community”? Try devising an objective definition of climatology that includes fake Nobel Laureate Michael Mann, but not Richard Lindzen. Or in a wider community, Guardian columnists Dana Nuccitelli, Bob Ward and John Vidal, but not the late Prof. Bob Carter, or science writer Matt Ridley.

    2. We have the denial word. What is being denied?
    – That the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions?
    – That there is a pervasive consensus?
    – That opinions about scientific hypotheses are a valid measure of their scientific worth?
    – That the measures of consensus have validity in promotion of policy?

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  22. Pingback: Buckets of money are available | Climate Scepticism

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