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Experts, Texperts

One of the most prevalent arguments used against climate change scepticism is the presupposed lack of genuine expertise that lies behind expressions of doubt. On the one hand you have 97% of the world’s most sciency scientists, and on the other hand you have John Cook’s cartoon creation, Cranky Uncle, every family’s know-it-all proselytizer, wallowing in the ‘moral and rhetorical morass that is climate change denial’ [1].

This assumed dichotomy between the true expertise of the 17 year-old Greta Thunbergs of this world and the phoney expertise of the merchants of doubt features across all aspects of the climate change debate. Indeed, I am advised that for every saintly David Attenborough [2] you will find an ungodly horde of sadly deluded geezers, sat at their computers in their underpants and tinfoil hats, anonymously banging out ill-informed vitriol designed to condemn Mother Nature to an underserved climate apocalypse. Worse still, there is a suspicion that some of these scoundrels are actually quite clever and have learnt a number of sneaky tricks to give the casual onlooker the impression that they know what they are talking about. That’s why Lewandowsky and Cook’s Debunking Handbook was so important to the activists. It was the Climate Outreach Bible, guaranteed to put those pesky climate change deniers firmly back in their grubby little place – and not once does the handbook appear to descend into propagandist twaddle (an impression, alas, that is only sustainable by overlooking its content).

Announcing the Uncertainty Handbook

Just as important, however, was the same organisation’s Uncertainty Handbook. If anything, this was even more important than the Debunking Handbook, since uncertainty and its proper understanding lies at the heart of the matter. As the handbook itself puts it:

“Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses?”

Yes, this really is a problem to ponder whilst tucking into your avocado and quinoa salad. And given how many pseudo-experts there are alleged to be out there, pontificating upon uncertainty and how it subverts good decision-making, it is vital that there should be true experts on hand to demolish such a misconception. That said, I only refer to ‘experts’ because that is how the four authors of the Uncertainty Handbook wish to be known. For example, this is how Dr Adam Corner refers to himself and his three fellow musketeers:

“All are experts in their fields and have expertise relating to the role of uncertainty in climate change or how best to communicate it.”

But just what does it take to become one of the finest swordsman in the land when it comes to uncertainty in climate change? What qualifications are needed to write a handbook on the subject – other than, of course, the tinfoil hat and an internet connection? Come to think of it, what background would one need to claim expertise in uncertainty analysis, full stop?

The Making of an Expert

Well, firstly you could be a psychologist from Bristol University, like Dr Adam Corner or Stephan Lewandowsky. Not convinced? Well, perhaps you could be ecofeminist, Dr Mary Phillips of Bristol University’s School of Economics, Finance and Management. With such a background, surely she would have a veritable portfolio of research papers on uncertainty analysis under her belt –  but apparently not. Finally, you could be Olga Roberts, schooled in anthropology before moving onto political science. I’m sure the importance of delineating aleatoric and epistemic components prior to propagating uncertainty looms large in all good anthropology texts.

So, in conclusion, to claim expertise in uncertainty analysis and climatology one doesn’t need to have actually studied either subject at any stage, and one certainly doesn’t need to have earned a living by demonstrating an ability to apply the precepts of uncertainty analysis in practical applications. Admittedly, the two psychologists will know a thing or two about cognition under uncertainty but, believe me, you would need an awful lot more than that to decide upon the safety of a proposed civil construction built using partial information. As for risk management, I wonder which of these fine individuals is a member of a relevant professional body such as the Institute of Risk Management (IRM). Methinks none. And yet here we have a publication alleging that it:

“..distils the most important research findings and expert advice on communicating uncertainty into a few pages of practical, easy-to-apply techniques, providing scientists, policymakers and campaigners with the tools they need to communicate more effectively around climate change.”

Wow! That’s a mighty fine achievement for a quartet of laymen. Not just ‘important’ but ‘the most important’? But, of course, the proof is in the pudding. Despite their lack of credentials or a track record of putting their understanding to the test, just how good a document have they managed to produce?

Denouncing the Uncertainty Handbook

Sadly, I have to declare that their efforts are every bit as good as one would expect from four individuals who are blagging their way through a subject area that is as technically complex as they are educationally and experientially challenged. And this despite the authors’ unsubstantiated claim that their handbook “was vetted and reviewed prior to publication by five leading experts in risk research and two climate communications practitioners”. Add to that the “anonymised” quotes from “11 stakeholders who work in the science-policy arena”, and a picture begins to emerge of industrial-strength con-artistry and wholesale quackery. Who are all of these experts that were so keen to contribute but so happy to be distanced from the results? Perhaps a clue is given here:

“Although public debate often cites uncertainty as a reason to delay policy action, the reality is very different: several recent scientific papers have shown that greater scientific uncertainty provides a greater, rather than lesser, impetus for climate mitigation2.”

Unfortunately, upon consulting the handbook’s footnote 2, one finds that the ‘several scientific papers’ turns out to be a single, two-part paper written by serial self-citer Stephan Lewandowsky! Really Stephan? You think your handbook enjoys independent scientific endorsement because it peddles the same flawed logic you came up with when pushing your ‘uncertainty as knowledge’ thesis?

I could give a blow-by-blow account of what is wrong with the handbook, but life is too short. I will say only that it comes from an assumption of superior understanding that is as much founded upon misplaced self-esteem as it is upon a withering lack of respect for the group that it is targeted against. Its arguments are often facile, its assumptions unsound and its analogies inappropriate. Nothing is revealed about the foundations of uncertainty and how it should be measured.  Accusations of cognitive bias are thrown around with little regard for how they could apply to both sides of the argument. Wild accusations are made, such as:

“A common strategy of people who reject the scientific consensus is to intentionally confuse and conflate different types of uncertainty.”

This coming from an author (Lewandowsky) who has shown not the slightest understanding of the taxonomy of uncertainty in any of his publications. In short, apart from revealing some good framing tricks to nudge the unsuspecting towards the ‘right’ conclusion, I see little of merit within the handbook’s twenty overweening and tendentious pages.

Let’s Just Finish With an Example

Rather than labour the point further, I will leave you with an imagined interchange that the handbook confidently provides, illustrating how the well-informed communicator of climate uncertainty should deal with the denier:

Communicator: “Do you have house insurance?”

Denier: “Of course – pretty much everyone does.”

Communicator: “Well reducing our carbon emissions is exactly the same. It’s an insurance policy against the risks that scientists tell us climate change will bring.”

Denier: “But how sure are we?”

This quaintly acquiescent response from the denier – if the handbook is to be believed – provides the communicator with the perfect opportunity to introduce the 97% consensus statistic, guaranteed to silence all rational sceptics. But, of course, what the denier would say in real life is this:

Denier: “No it isn’t. The insurance policy comparison is completely inappropriate. Insurance policies are taken out by a party that seeks to transfer non-ergodic risk to another party that is positioned to handle the risk ergodically. In climate change, there is no risk tolerant insurance broker to which the human race can transfer risk, and the situation remains non-ergodic because the risks associated with the so-called policy are as potentially damaging as those originally confronted. Reducing carbon emissions is not an insurance policy, it is a course of action based upon a risk-based decision that hinges critically upon the risks and uncertainties associated with the alternatives. It introduces what risk managers are referring to as ‘transition risk’. I really do think you ought to have learnt some basics before you took on the job of expert communicator of uncertainty.”

Oh hum. Even a texpert is allowed to dream [3].

Notes:

[1] Thanks go to Stephan Lewandowsky for this particularly temperate and non-confrontational precis of climate scepticism.

[2] In case you didn’t know, David Attenborough is the quintessential Mr Avuncular and true sage on all matters environmental.

[3] A texpert, if you haven’t already worked it out, is someone who appears on the internet claiming to have expertise. The word has its origins in the lyrics of John Lennon: “Expert, texpert, choking smokers, don’t you think the Joker laughs at you?” The authors of the Uncertainty Handbook may be the egg men, but I am the walrus. Goo goo g’joob.

13 thoughts on “Experts, Texperts

  1. “16 year-old Greta Thunbergs of this world . . .”

    The cost of heating being what it is in Scotland (despite 1,000-plus wind turbines within 20 miles of where we live), you won’t see me sitting at a computer in my underpants this late in the year. OTOH, you can rest assured you’ll never see me without a tinfoil hat whatever the season. Precautionary Principles and all that. As you know, tin-foil-savvy types never like to see a single nit go unpicked so could I just mention that St Greta was born in January 2003 and is thus now 17 years old? And a half, even.

    “Admittedly, the two psychologists will know a thing or two about cognition under uncertainty . . .”

    More seriously, speaking for the mo as a psychologist (sooooo many moons ago) and taking your wider point, I’d respectfully urge you not to put money on that. The little I’ve read of Lewandowsky’s “psychology” was unmitigated twaddle. Of that, you can be certain.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. The circular swill Lewandowsky has placed in epistles, and swallowed whole-heartedly by St. Great, is the critical race theory of climate: poisonous intellect killing and destructive.

    Like

  3. Ryelands,

    I thought it would be more relevant to quote the age Greta had attained at the point when she was first accepted by the world as an expert. However, you’re right, I should have used the age at the time of writing, so I’ll change that.

    As for Lewandowsky’s prowess as a psychologist, I am perfectly happy to defer to someone who has at least studied the subject, no matter how long ago. I was only being chivalrous in granting that Stephan would have at least the same knowledge on the subject that I have, i.e. that he is familiar with ambiguity aversion and anchoring, etc. However, I do wonder. Here he is in action talking at a café scientifique on the subject:

    https://royalsociety.org/science-events-and-lectures/2016/02/uncertainty-us/

    Early on, he introduces the ‘above average effect’ in which individuals tend to over-estimate their abilities and hence their capacity to manage risk. As a result, he concludes that we are all predisposed to be optimistic regarding the future and that is why we don’t feel the need to tackle climate change. He doesn’t seem to understand that the real point is that people perceive risk differently depending upon whether or not they feel in control and it is the extent to which they are in control that is often over-estimated. How this bears upon attitudes towards climate change is therefore much less straightforward than Lewandowsky would have you believe. This is supposed to be his specialisation and he still manages to make a basic error.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When confronted with the argument that mitigating against climate change is like buying an insurance policy for one’s house, my response is the non-intellectual (but I think nevertheless reasonable) one that I wouldn’t pay more for a house insurance policy than it would cost to re-build my house.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Climate policies dressed up as insurance policies is fraud.
    Real insurance brings certain promises of specific performance if contractual conditions are met in a claim.
    Climate policies offer nothing of the sort. Climate policies are all cost, combined with posing, and no benefit. Even a well marketed ponzi scheme at least offers a promise of some benefit.
    The only thing climate policies offer is the chance, at huge and increasing cost, of impacting something called “climate”. Not weather, not weather events, not famine, flood, fire or drought.
    Nothing.

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  6. Is it fair to knock Dr Mary Phillips just because she hasn’t written any papers with “uncertainty” in the title? What she has written is a paper called “Howard and the Mermaid” in which:

    an analysis is offered of the autobiography of Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, and the Starbucks logo which presents an unusual two-tailed mermaid, […] drawing on the work of Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982) to investigate the idea of the abject, meaning a human reaction to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between self and other. […] The texts are explored to reveal how the abject Other, in these texts emotion, the feminine and the female reproductive sexual body, both fascinates and disgusts but cannot be excluded and leaks back. The reading contests and problematizes the customary discourse of CEO autobiography which is managerialist and heroic by uncovering a story of love, obsession and seduction which emasculates the story’s hero. Both New Historicist methodology and the concept of abjection are offered as means to develop interesting insights into discourses of organization.

    Dr Phillips is an expert in the leaking female sexual body and the organisation of a major coffee bar franchise. Isn’t that enough for you?

    Liked by 2 people

  7. “He doesn’t seem to understand that the real point is that people perceive risk differently depending upon whether or not they feel in control and it is the extent to which they are in control that is often over-estimated. How this bears upon attitudes towards climate change is therefore much less straightforward than Lewandowsky would have you believe. This is supposed to be his specialisation and he still manages to make a basic error.”

    Indeed while waxing lyrical about skeptical memes that he believes to have contaminated the orthodox climate literature, he says nothing about the endless waves of apocalyptic (and other negative) memes that have washed over humanity since before history was written, robbing communities of rationality with respect to risk assessment and much else in whatever domains a cultural orthodoxy reigns. The price for actually being communities, united in the same visions of guilt and fear and repression, albeit also (false) hope of salvation too (you can’t be rescued from an apocalypse that never existed). All who are subject to the influence of such memes feel in control – in the sense that ‘if we just slay the beast”, all will be well. Hence their anger at folks who inexplicably don’t want to slay the beast.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. thanks for the “https://climateoutreach.org/reports/uncertainty-handbook/” link

    what a mishmash titled – “In the webinar below, Dr Adam Corner and Prof Stephan Lewandowsky present the handbook’s 12 principles and answer questions from attendees”

    watch it & Dr Adam Corner is captioned as Stephan Lewandowsky
    as you say in the post & others can probably add comments on “experts” at what?

    ps – notice it’s another “charity” with a “Our funders” page with no £ signs I can see?

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  9. @John – watched the whole vid – you have to wonder who buys this Amateurish dross.
    mentions “tricks” but not really “tricks”.
    several times,soap operas should include it etc…

    if he was trying to get me to invest in his fund/vision he would be shown the door.
    ohh – see the £$ the “charity” gets may be a clue.

    Like

  10. Pingback: Lewandowsky’s Progress | Climate Scepticism

  11. Geoff,

    It’s not just that Dr Phillips’ academic background is irrelevant to the subject matter of the handbook. There also seems to be no evidence of her having any input, despite her being listed as a co-author. As an ecofeminist, just what did she contribute? Did she just make the tea for the boys? If so, that can’t have gone down very well.

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  12. When confronted with the argument that mitigating against climate change is like buying an insurance policy for one’s house, my response is the non-intellectual (but I think nevertheless reasonable) one that I wouldn’t pay more for a house insurance policy than it would cost to re-build my house.

    Rather too many Greens want us to destroy the house to save it.

    We’re being told off for paying insurance (e.g setting up a large sovereign wealth fund to manage any costs associated) and carrying on as normal.

    Like

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