"It is the unhappy fate of the scientist today that he must play the role of Cassandra in the body politic, sending his fellow men to bed with nightmares in the hope to be heard in time."

- Arthur von Hippel, in "The Molecular Designing of Materials" (h/t @upbeatprof)

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The D-Word and the S-word

The D-Word

I don’t usually call anyone a denier or a denialist by name, though I’ve been in a lot of internet arguments and may well have slipped up a time or two.

 I do use the words “denier” and “denialist” generically to refer to a position in the climate debates - I certainly think there is denial going on, and I haven’t been reluctant to point that out.

There is a question as to who is doing the Godwin violation - those using the word or those complaining about it. As someone who grew up in a Holocaust refugee community, as someone who lost his paternal grandfather and his oldest cousin to the death trains, as someone whose aunt still bears a number tattooed on her arm,  I have a pretty strong claim to be part of that group that Keith Kloor refers to as

“Jewish academics, writers, and scientists involved in the climate debate who do use the “denier” term and don’t make that association, so they don’t believe they are trivializing the holocaust or exploiting the original ugliness of the term."
I think bringing Nazis into the question is in the eye of the beholder. Specifically, the Godwin’s Law violation in the climate context is usually (though as Mr Fuller is quick to point out, not always) in the eye of the accused denier.

That said, I agree with Keith that referring to an individual as a “denier” is 
“as inflammatory as calling a climate scientist a fraud, or climate science fraudulent. These are conversation stoppers”
Indeed, when someone is directly offensive to a correspondent, as Willard pointed out to me recently, it may well be because they want to terminate the conversation. If someone is badgering me about renouncing the so-called scandals of so-called “Climategate” I know they have long since checked their rational capacities at the door.

I won’t call them the D-word in response, though you can be assured that I am thinking it.

I will just check out.

The S-Word

This largely comes up in the context of a campaign, recently spearheaded by Mark Boslough, to stop using the word "skeptic" in news reports about people who take a stance in opposition to the climate science consensus. (There's a petition here.)

I support this petition, insofar as it doesn't explicitly demand the used of the "D-word".  Naysayers are not real skeptics and the press shouldn't dignify them with such a compliment. Certainly, for example, the likes of Senator Inhofe with his bible-thumping can't fairly be called a "skeptic", though the press habitually does exactly that.

The trouble is this - the communication landscape has been so thoroughly polluted that people arriving on the landscape as genuine skeptics, interested and willing to engage on the evidence, are frequently successfully recruited by the denial camp.

To those who would ask, incredulously, how could anyone still be legitimately on the fence about this issue, I respond that you must not be taking the long view



Every day, ten thousand people in the US (a quarter million worldwide) think about climate change for the first time. And each of them has to make their way through the thicket of confusion and misdirection that has been thrown up all around this issue, given that Authority has been Questioned, so successfully that a person coming into the area unprepared has no clue who the authority is.

The uncommitted people most willing to engage on the science, and most important to reach, are the big fish in the small ponds, including the most scientifically adept high school kids. There's also engineers and medical types trying to get a grip on this matter every day. They'll be a bit smug to begin with. The fabric of misdirection and outright lies they encounter will not make it easy for them to navigate the issue if they don't have a personal connection to an earth scientist.

And when they try to claim a skeptical stance, it really is a bad idea to get all huffy and jump to calling them "deniers". That's a prediction with a tendency to fulfill itself.

Gaining Trust and Thereby Generating Mistrust

The trouble with the Kahan/Leiserowitz etc. analysis of the debate is not that it's wrong. It is, in fact, correct in addressing part of the problem.

It's correct that there is a spectrum of concern on the issue and that it is increasingly correlated with the usual left-right specturm. It is of course correct that any policy measure requires political support, and that on matters of such fundamental importance, majority support is important.

This means that anyone engaged enough to vote needs to be convinced that the consensus position is sound. And of course, the vast majority of people are not won over by evidence and reason, but by proxy arguments, essentially arguments from authority. We simply don't have the time to resolve every issue from first principles.

That's the whole idea of representative democracy, after all - we delegate decisions to people we trust. At least in principle. What we have to do in these matters is to determine who the real experts are. And in the presence of systematic antisocial behavior, this becomes very difficult.

There really is no fundamental doubt among the relevant professions that CO2 accumulation is increasingly risky with every passing year and that the current policies are woefully ill-advised. There really is no doubt that organized denial, partly motivated by protecting enormous wealth, is trying to prevent action The existence of people who are not engaged with the science who believe these things is a good thing.

But it has a very unfortunate side effect, insofar as the next level of sophistication is concerned. When a skeptic of the sort willing to engage scientifically arrives on the scene, he or she will be far more likely to encounter people who "believe in" or "don't believe in" "the science" than people who are actually in a position to explain it effectively. When beliefs are challenged, defenses go up. And the first defense of the novice is to accuse the challenger of "denial".

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. And on this score Keith Kloor is right:
If your objective is to get more people seriously engaged with the climate change issue, you probably want to avoid  unwittingly antagonizing them with derogatory language.
Keith goes on to say
And by them, I mean the lurkers and fence-sitters in the mushy middle who tune in and out of the volatile climate discussion.

But that's not who I mean. I mean the people willing to engage the science.  The trouble arises when a somewhat sophisticated person challenging the science looks around for someone to discuss it and as is more likely than not encounters a person less sophisticated trying to defend it. I don't know that there's much precedent for this constellation of factors.

As I've said before, climate science has the worst relationship with its hobbyist community in the history of science. This entanglement with politics is part of it. Every time we listen to the Kahans and Leiserowitzes and their advice on how to "move the needle", how to move the bulk of the population to be more amenable to a reasonable climate policy, we create more people who are poor ambassadors for the science itself to those who want to engage the science. That in turn may or may not create more favorable conditions for climate policy among the tuned-out mushy middle, but this is a long run problem.

In the long run, it is crucial to make the science sufficiently accessible that people can access it. This despite the fact that more people are trying to subvert that goal than to facilitate it.

I don't know whose job it is to solve this. But it helps to start by understanding it.

TL;DR - Politics Isn't Everything

Willard says this is too long, and should be three or even four posts, but I think it is a single coherent argument. Admittedly, there are multiple points in the argument.

1) There is lots of denial about climate.
2) The only reason to call a specific person a denier is to cut off conversation with them, to state you find them uninteresting.
3) There are better ways to do this.
4) True skeptics, genuinely neutral and curious about climate science, are born every day.
5) Deniers have resources and talents intended to win them over.
6) Some skeptics succumb, and become deniers.
7) Playing the political battle is necessary.
8) But playing on the political battlefield creates unsophisticated allies.
9) Unsophisticated allies will tend to use the "D-word" to cut off conversation when threatened.
10) Skeptics will be turned away from reality by being accused of denial.
11) Skeptics have difficulty finding scientific exposition suitable for their interests and skills.
12) The combination of the previous two patterns contributes to the recruitment of deniers.
13) The political battlefield alone is not sufficient. Science must be made accessible.

Willard also says I've made these points before. Maybe so. But people still don't seem to get it, so I might as well repeat myself.