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.”
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, this, this 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.