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Thoughts on the Climate Debate

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If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

–Bertrand Russell

The climate debate has gotten even more interesting lately. It heated up when Warren Pearce questioned the “depressingly binary characterisation” of the discussion in an article titled: “Are climate sceptics the real champions of the scientific method?“. Even though the article never explicitly answers this question, the response in the climasphere seemed entirely focused on it and not the article’s contents.

While Pearce offers a complimentary view on some sceptics and their issues, his conclusion cautions that:

The conundrum is that both “sides” (if one can use that term) seem to focus on real science as the arbiter of knowledge claims. In doing so, they risk constricting material policy measures, issues of wider public significance than scientific debates about climate change.

While one could consider this as guidance on how to achieve actual policy changes, most readers seemed to consider it an attack or defence of their particular “side”.

A post titled “Science deniers just don’t think: All hail the scientific method” was offered by many as a rebuttal to Pearce. This portion of a larger work seeks to inform us on how important the Scientific Method is despite our inclination to avoid it. The reader is told that they “prefer to see causes rather than effects, signals in the noise, patterns in the randomness. You prefer easy-to-understand stories, and thus turn everything in life into a narrative so that complicated problems become easy.” Scientists, on the other hand work to remove the narrative, to boil it away, leaving behind only the raw facts.” 

The prose seems more humorous than condescending. Rather than explicitly telling us to believe the scientists, I believe it is more of a fun way to examine the scientific method. While I could be wrong, I can’t help wondering if its circulators took it more at face value – IE: “you, the layman, can’t think for yourself; you need to trust us scientists because we know how to think properly”. Either way, as I discuss below, the scientific method plays little in forming people’s beliefs – and I believe that includes scientists.

To add fuel to the fire, Tamsin Edwards followed Pearce’s article a day later with “Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies which garnered much wider criticism. It seems advocates on all sides of the discussion don’t like to be told that what they’re doing is not effective. A more cynical view might see advocates as being more concerned with getting heard than effecting change.

Andrew Dessler disagreed with Edwards’ statement that “climate scientists have a moral obligation to strive for impartiality” responding that “For me, speaking out is the moral obligation.” It’s interesting that morals can guide us to opposite positions.

Dessler continues:

“For example, Dr. Edwards claims that “much climate skepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.” She certainly may believe this, but it’s wrong. Cognitive research has shown that views on climate science can be almost entirely explained by an individual’s values — e.g., their view on the proper role of government.”

While I agree with Dessler that our perception of climate science is influenced by our values, the Yale Cultural Cognition Project shows that it’s more complicated than that. It is the perceived policy solutions to climate change that our values assess our beliefs against. Our belief in climate science is inclined to match our favoured policy, or lack thereof. If we like the policy we see climate change as more threatening. If we don’t like the policy we diminish the threat. The recent Pol Toll also shows that Dessler is only part right with respect to Edwards’ claim – at least if we consider “nastiness” a proxy for trustworthiness, and trustworthiness a proxy for scepticism.

I find the Cultural Cognition Project interesting and important but also weird. A participant is asked to rate the statement: “The government should do more to advance society’s goals, even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals” which determines their position on the “Communitarianism/Individualism” axis. People who support that statement become “Communitarians”. Unsurprisingly, we later find this group sees climate change as a greater threat than “Individualists”. Surely the process of reducing values into just two axes to extrapolate views on climate change risk causes an over-simplification in results.

To try and understand how our views on policy influence our belief in science, I decided to conduct my own experiment. Since I have little time or money to conduct a study, I’ll just have to use myself. In the table below, I try to list every value, preference, personality trait, etc., that influences my policy preferences and beliefs around climate change. These factors were chosen by simple self-reflection. During this process, the interactions between the factors became evident. A change in one factor pulls against others to maintain some overall consistency or cohesiveness. In the end, it is a sticky web of assumptions, perceptions, ideology, trustfulness, cultural values, peer pressure, personality traits, policy preference, ability to think critically, etc., that forms a belief. And these are just the ones that came quickly to mind.

In my case, it seems a fairly broad range of belief is possible within this “web”. This is due, in large part, to a policy preference for a compensation-based carbon tax where revenues flow first to impoverished people in hazardous climates. Such a tax can increase or decrease depending on the rate and impacts of climate change. Only when ECS passes 3 or 4 degrees does my “web” start to get uncomfortably strained to the point I would have to consider more top-down mitigation-based policies. Even then, I think they should only come after compensation.

So while a large number of factors influence my belief, there is still some room for actual science and critical thinking to play a part. The point for advocates is that the science does little to change my assumption that it’s more useful to lift people out of poverty than reduce emissions with respect to a warming world.

Warren seemed to have this in mind when he wrote:

Both climate change sceptics and advocates of climate policy see this question as important; sharing a faith that scientific evidence is the basis for public policy. However, such a faith omits the possibility that science is not suited to such a role, and that “solving” climate change does not flow linearly from agreement on the science.

Since two people can agree on the science but not the policy, maybe the focus shouldn’t be on scientific consensus but on policy consensus. The problem with this approach is that it will not please the people on the margins – those who wish to do nothing and those who which to do a lot. Greater consensus around policy would require a more open and good-faith discussion with concessions by all. It would mean considering all the factors that contribute to policy preferences – the “sticky web” of society – and trying to find common ground between them.

This is a big job. Scientists who feel the need to advocate should be prepared to engage in this discussion in a humble and restrained manner. In addition, they should ask themselves if they are competent enough to have a positive impact – are you helping to foster greater consensus on policy direction or are you contributing to that “depressingly binary characterisation” that only hinders progress. I would submit that Edward’s approach of non-advocacy would best suit the majority of climate scientists.

Table 1: Factors contributing to belief in climate issues in one individual.

Factor Expected Effect on Belief Individual Result
Political orientation

I speculate that the most important axis on the political spectrum is the economic one with greater sensitivity to risk on the left side. The authoritarian axis would also play a part with those more accepting of strong policy on the upper side.

Lower-central (Individualist Anarchism). There is a strong desire for free-markets but also of open and accountable justice. This influences me greatly through my preference for compensation-based policies. Ideally these would be voluntarily contributions by individuals, corporations and governments – something I’d like to write about further.


How far someone is willing to disagree with their peer-group and to be unmoved by consensus-based arguments.

Weak. As revealed by the other factors, I’m comfortable holding beliefs that aren’t exactly mainstream. Even so, this feels like a very powerful factor. Many factors push me to diminish the threat of climate change yet my views on the science are fairly mainstream.

It’s not my critical thinking skills that lead me to doubt the theories of Nicola Scafetta, for example. That doubt was created by many of these factors but conformity and appeal to authority are certainly amongst the top.


As the comments made by Edwards and Dressler show, this one is too hard to speculate on. Morals can lead you to act in all sorts of ways.

Egoist. The idea that there no such thing as morals. We may think we have them, but if we dig deep enough we see that we are really just motivated by self-interest. Being free of them we can follow our individual preferences and desires.

My preference is for a predictable and stable economic system. Part of that system would include a concerted effort to account for externalities such as damage from a warming world.

Future Outlook

How safe are we? Are we on the brink of destruction or are things getting better all the time? Will technology help us or just as likely hurt us?

Positive Technophile. Things are getting better. We are naturally de-carbonizing and increasing energy efficiency. Technology is advancing quickly and we’ll be able to control the climate one day. This feels like a huge factor for me, perhaps the largest.

I can’t help speculate how large a factor this is in others. In discussing climate change with friends I’ve heard things like “it just feels like something is not right” and “it way way colder when I was young” (even when it wasn’t). With all the other scares – from plastic islands in the pacific ocean to BPAs – climate change is just another thing that’s going to kill us.


The ability to change one’s belief. While this factor isn’t involved in the forming of beliefs and preferences, it is certainly important in the context of the changing science of climate change.

Fair. No one wants to change their beliefs – it’s too much work! But, I have found my belief in climate science change quite a bit since climategate. There was a lot of mistrust in that period but it feels things have improved in many ways. I’m now inclined to believe that most of climate change science is of decent quality produced by hard working scientists.

I admit to letting the behaviour of a small group of scientists influence my perception of climate science as a whole. In addition I let the media influence what I thought climate science was – the headlines never seem to match the paper they reference.


While everyone wants clean air and water we certainly prioritize such things. How does one’s concern for people compare to their concern for the environment? Does one worry more about fracking or hunger?

Weak. I certainly have my issues such as hormones and antibiotics in our food supply and animal welfare. I like fracking but think it’s horribly under-regulated in the states. Generally I am more worried about government policy running roughshod over people’s rights and freedoms.

This factor feels strongly influenced by Future Outlook and Political Orientation.


Does one believe climate change science is a fraud perpetrated by the United Nations and/or the international bankers?

In the same vein, does one think that humans are more or less susceptible to group-think or mass-delusions.

Weak-Moderate. I am somewhat conspiratorial in that I believe conspiracies are constantly being attempted but I doubt they are often that successful. Certainly not enough to pull off a faked moon landing!

More troubling than real conspiracies is the natural inclination of conformity and group-think especially in hierarchical structures such as the IPCC. I also think there is a concious and/or unconscious desire for scientists to produce results in their favour. Individually this could be a new research grant and institutionally it could be its very existence (IPCC).

This factor feels strongly connected to Political Orientation as they both seem to flow from a core world-view.

Critical Thinking

The ability to understand the science. To use the scientific method to draw conclusions from observations.

Moderate. As a programmer I had better have at least some of this skill. Interestingly the Cultural Cognition Project showed that increasing one’s knowledge of climate science only strengthened their inclination to either a low or high risk perception of climate change.

I would also point to Nicola Scafetta as a person with obvious critical thinking skills that certainly haven’t brought him closer to a scientific cconsensus.


How far does one trust climate science in general? Which scientists does one chose to believe in?

Moderate (Previously low). While this factor is strongly influenced by Conspiratorial-Suspicious, Critical Thinking, Tendency to Reify and Conformity, there are many other issues involved. Scientists that don’t share their data and can’t admit mistakes are trusted very little. Scientists who advocate for policies are less trusted than those who don’t.

Another large factor is whether or not a scientists speaks out against a clearly bad paper that supports their advocacy. Gavin Schmidt criticizing the recent paper on methane is something that increases my trust in him. Such actions show that even an advocate is not entirely uninterested in finding scientific truth.

Tendency to Reify

My speculation is that the tendency use reification shows a diminished ability to modify beliefs – a small “sticky web”. While it may not influence how beliefs are formed on their own, it shows how far those beliefs can change.

Low. Reification in discourse drives me crazy. “Capitalism will destroy us”, “Socialists are evil”, “Climate change is real”, “Deniers don’t think”.

When we reify, we turn a complex issue like the denial of science into simply: if you don’t agree with me you’re a denier. Reification strengthens the divides between “us and them”, between “alarmists and deniers”. It forms sides and restricts us from being open-minded.

Most importantly if confuses the distinction between policy and science. If I don’t agree with you that we need massive emission reductions, I might not be a denier. We might even have a similar understanding of the science but, for many other reasons, we disagree on it’s implication for policy.

I am amazed by seemingly bright scientists who show so much reification in the climasphere. It makes them virtually impossible to trust or take serious. The most obvious example is Michael Mann who I don’t think could even be considered a scientist at this point.


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