A great man once said: “The definition of sanity is doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result until you get carted away in a straitjacket. Then you win.”
Which is why I’m coming back to the subject of Professor Lewandowsky, who is on record as stating that his research has led him to the conclusion that discussion with climate sceptics/deniers is a waste of time. In fact this is not a conclusion, but a premiss of his work, as can be seen from this article published two years before the “NASA faked the Moon Landing, therefore Climate Science is a Hoax” paper that made his name. It dates from May 16, 2011 and it’s a reply to an article published just four days earlier by Professor Garth Paltridge, emeritus professor at the University of Tasmania and ex-chief research scientist at the CSIRO Division of Meteorological Physics.
Here is what Professor Paltridge has to say, reproduced in its entirety so that we know what we’re talking about:
The scientific community is polarised on the matter of climate change. On one hand there are those within what might be called the climate research establishment. They should know what they are talking about, and generally support in public the thesis of dangerous global warming. On the other hand there are those – mainly from other disciplines or from the various ranks of amateur scientists, but nevertheless also including a fair number of quite respectable climate scientists – who for one reason or another are sceptical about climate change. They openly maintain that the whole concept of dangerous man-made global warming is probably nonsense. The scientists in the middle tend to say very little. At least in public.
The problem for the scientific community is that this polarisation is seriously threatening the public’s perception of the professionalism of scientists in general. Setting aside the issue of who is right in the debate, it seems that some of the more vocal of climate researchers have fallen into a mode of open and almost vicious denigration of climate sceptics (“deniers” is the rather offensive popular terminology of the day). They insist that only researchers directly within the climate-change community are capable of giving authoritative advice; and they insist that one can find true and reputable science only in peer-reviewed climate literature. There are also reports of highly unscientific practices – for instance, that outsiders and known sceptics are denied access to important data on which climate science is based.
Sceptics on the other hand have in many cases been too personal in their attacks on climate science and climate scientists. They have made full use of the various sceptical climate weblogs to get around the discipline of peer review. A lot of their scientific arguments are “hairy” to say the least; and in general they have not been greatly constrained by the checks and balances built into the normal scientific system. Some of them just like being a nuisance. All this is discussed extensively and publicly on the web. There are arguments to explain and justify the less flavoursome attitudes of either side.
But whatever one might think of the rights and wrongs of the business, the fact remains that a situation has developed which is reminiscent in many ways of religion in the Middle Ages. The priests of that time opposed translation of the scriptures from Latin into the local languages. Only people fully trained in the theology of the time were capable of interpreting the scriptures correctly, they said. It would, they said, be highly dangerous to allow non-trained people to have direct access to the Word of God because the chances were high that they would get it wrong. And the priests of the time were not exactly backward in applying their peculiarly nasty forms of denigration on those who thought otherwise about the matter. Suffice it to say that, despite their strong whip hand (there was no internet at the time!) they ultimately lost both the battle and much of their public support.
All of which leads to the following.
Since the research establishment is presumably the more “grown-up and sophisticated” of the two sides in the debate – it certainly has by far the lion’s share of resources and public access – it seems appropriate to expect the establishment to take the first steps in any attempt to bridge the divide between the sides. One of the steps might be to formally recognise that not all climate sceptics are rogues and vagabonds. We should remember that it is probably more of a rule than an exception for new ideas in any particular field of research to come from the outside. We should also remember that some weblog sceptics have access to a quite remarkable store of unpaid and enthusiastic scientific labour. Perhaps however, the very first step should be for climate scientists to make a conscious effort to read some of the documentation appearing in the more respectable sceptic weblogs: Climate Audit and Whats Up With That for instance. Climate researchers need to develop a first-hand appreciation of the mind-set of the sceptics, and thereby understand how best to engage with them, to take advantage of their ideas (and perhaps of their access to unpaid enthusiasts!), and to be positive and helpful when identifying errors in some of the more extreme ideas.
And here is how Lewandowsky replies Professor Paltridge’s reasoned pleas for dialogue between conflicting points of view. He starts with a lesson in basic Aristotelean logic:
All polar bears are animals. Some animals are white. Therefore, some polar bears are white. Is this conclusion logically implied or not? There is a 75% chance you might endorse this conclusion despite it being logically false.
Really, Stephan, is this the way to address an Emeritus Professor of Meteorological Physics?
..whether due to mere ignorance or ideologically-driven mendacity, denier illogic can be revealed for the nonsense it is by translating it into an everyday equivalent. Consider the famous denialist two-step, often uttered in the same breath: “it’s not warming… but it’s natural variation.” This is logically equivalent to the claim: “decaying teeth don’t exist… but they fall out naturally.”
What’s wrong with this (apart from accusing professor Paltridge of ignorance or ideological mendacity)?
1) No denialist has ever uttered in the same breath or even in separate breaths the two statements above, and Lewandowsky provides no evidence that they have. What has often been said is that “it hasn’t warmed since x” and this statement has often been true. If you want a dental analogy, it would be ‘my teeth have not decayed since x.” And of course, teeth do fall out naturally, decayed or not. And who has been evoking natural climate variation (= “teeth sometimes fall out for unknown reasons”) over the past twenty years if not the defenders of the consensus?
2) A century ago Freud convincingly linked obsession with tooth loss to guilt about masturbation. Lewandowsky should keep his dental fantasies to himself.
After this logical self-abuse on the subject of teeth, Lewandowsky cuts to the quick with this observation:
No one would place much faith in that dental opinion and no one should place any trust into equivalent illogic when it comes to climate. In other instances, compromised reasoning can be more subtle, especially when couched in calm and civil terms..
and he links to the article by Professor Paltridge, thus accusing him of making the above logical error, (though couched in calm and civil terms) ..
At first glance, Emeritus Professor Paltridge makes very reasonable points… Alas, the pernicious illogic lurking beneath this veneer can be revealed in its stark menace by translating the argument made about climate change into the context of HIV/AIDS.
..which Lewandowsky then proceeds to do, summarising Paltridge’s “pernicious illogic” in nine points, as if he were discussing AIDS, and finishing with:
This chillingly surreal narrative is far from hypothetical. Precisely this form of AIDS denial — for denial is what it is — was embraced by the former government of President Thabo Mbeki in South Africa. Although the U.S. National Academy of Sciences expressed the consensus in 1988, saying “the evidence that HIV causes AIDS is scientifically conclusive,” Mbeki’s government rejected that consensus, called Western medicine “racist”, and instead treated AIDS with garlic and beetroot, not anti-retroviral drugs. A recent peer-reviewed Harvard study estimated this denialism caused more than 330,000 deaths from AIDS. For that, Mbeki and his ilk are now held in richly deserved contempt around the world.
Let us return to climate change.
Yes, let’s. Because what the despicable Lewandowsky has just insinuated is that Professor Paltridge’s argument – that climate scientists should talk to sceptics – is somehow equivalent to causing a third of a million deaths. Then, after a mention of the 97% of domain experts who accept the scientific consensus on climate change, instead of returning to climate change, as he promised to do, he comes back to the subject of AIDS, (which rots your teeth, if it doesn’t make you blind):
In light of those facts, Professor Paltridge’s view of a “polarization” in the scientific community, in which there are scientists in the “middle” who “say little” and skeptics outside the “establishment” who are “reputable” appears misguided. Worse, it is tantamount to celebrating the few seemingly-credentialed individuals in the medical community who abused their academic privileges by feeding AIDS denial through bizarre publications or by side-stepping peer review altogether as heroes. No, the handful of AIDS denialists within the medical community are not heroes. On the contrary, they have blood on their hands. In light of current WHO estimates of 150,000 annual deaths from climate change, any appeal to those chimerical “reputable” skeptics runs a similarly grave moral risk. Posterity is likely to judge that stance at least as harshly as AIDS denial.
So far, according to Lewandowsky, simply suggesting that climate scientists would be well advised to talk to sceptics is the equivalent of mass murder. Paltridge has blood on his hands, because he advocates discussion of different points of view.
Finally, what about those “reputable” skeptic blogs, such as WattsUpWithThat, recommended by Professor Paltridge? What about their enthusiastic followers? The plethora of content provided by WattsUpWithThat defies summary in a few words, although it is nicely illustrated by the considerable effort this blog expended on a photograph of Professor Ray Bradley taken in a hallway at the University of Massachusetts. The backdrop to this picture happened to be a large graph of ice-core data affixed to the building’s wall. The “reputable” blog thereupon spent several frantic days on the alleged shortcoming of this incidental backdrop to a photo. In the end, enthusiastic followers sought to strip Professor Bradley of all scientific credibility based on the presumed graphical impropriety of… a wall in a university building. It is difficult to see any merit in such verbiage other than to reveal the obsessions of the originator.
The article in question is about a photo of Bradley – not any old photo, but his official portrait on the University of Massachusetts website posed in front of a graph showing a hockeystick labelled “Greenhouse Gas Record from the Vostok Ice Core.” Except it’s not. It’s a wavy Vostok record with a modern global temperature hockeystick blade tacked on. It’s no more a graph of the Vostok record than a horse with an icecream cone taped to his muzzle is a unicorn. Bradley is lying in an official photo on his university site. And Lewandowsky thinks that pointing out a lie by a prominent scientist is “verbiage.”
And this may explain why pre-emeritus scientists do not see fit to devote part of their 80-hour work weeks to patiently defending their university’s hallways against assault by a crowd that almost defies parody.
The “crowd that almost defies parody” is of course us, the “enthusiastic followers” of Anthony Watts. And “pre-emeritus scientists” are chaps like Stephan, youngish alpha-males working a sixteen hour day (at the weekends he enjoys gliding and rock-climbing, according to his CV, and still finds time to write articles like this one – forty one at the Conversation alone) and “pre-meritus” is added to emphasise the fact that the professor whose views he is demolishing is retired, probably gaga, and has leisure for such futile pastimes as recommending debate between opposing views.
But Lewandowsky is not finished:
Sometimes, building bridges in times of conflict is a valiant and commendable endeavour. But there are other times, readily evoked by the name Neville Chamberlain, where the attempt to seek reconciliation is inadvisable because it misjudges the situation.
You understood that right. Talking to Anthony Watts would be like negotiating with Hitler.
Is Lewandowsky simply the miserable little lying, whingeing shit we’ve all come to love and cherish, or is he actually seriously mentally deranged? And are either of those alternative possibilities valid grounds for removing his Royal Society gold medal and the five figure sum paid by the taxpayer to attract him to Britain?
Professor Paltridge is 77. This was his one and only article at the Conversation. Professor Lewandowsky can count his article a success.