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Know your friend

In the climate debate it can be hard to tell the two apart. Over recent days, I've been having some very interesting conversations with Matt Flaherty -- someone who is largely convinced of mainstream climate science. I've been suitably impressed by his open-mindedness. I don't think, however, that  I've persuaded him of anything more than that there is a case to answer, but a space for debate has been opened.

When I first came across Matt's blog, the first thing I noticed was the widespread use of the word "denier", which of course is a red rag to a bull for most people here - understandably I would say, when the word was not introduced into the debate for honourable reasons. However, its use is widespread and we should know by now that the mere fact of having used it is not enough to identify the user as a bad person. Those who have been following the debate for a while, which is probably most of us, will remember the jeremiads hurled in Judith Curry's direction when she first started hanging round at Climate Audit. One of the principal objections to her presence was that she had  used the d-word. Fortunately she persevered long enough to overcome the distrust and so eventually was elevated to the position of patron saint of lukewarmers. She still uses the d-word though.

I think though that the d-word remains overused. Matt tries to distinguish between deniers, which he defines as people who object to the global warming hypothesis on political grounds, and sceptics - people arguing the science. Obviously, many of the climate bloggers on the other side of the debate would argue that the science has reached a point where anyone arguing against it is a denier. This is pretty obviously a gross overstatement of the case, and not really worth discussing as I think we are all fairly clear that it's an attempt to shut off debate.

Even Matt's more nuanced approach worries me though. Matt has pointed to James Delingpole as a "denier", which he defines as someone who rejects the global warming hypothesis on political grounds. I wonder how he knows this. People come to the opinions they have in all sorts of ways, as regular commenter Nullius in Verba pointed out in the comments on the Simon Singh thread (it's way down at the bottom of the thread at time of writing).

My position is that anybody can hold and express an opinion based in trust in their preferred experts - what is known as Argument from Authority - or any other heuristic they like (correlation implies causation, argument from ignorance, etc.), so long as it is acknowledged that it is not a belief supported by science, and that people who choose different authorities to believe are not thereby any more defective or irrational for doing so.

Essentially, I distinguish ordinary opinions from scientific opinions - only the latter require a detailed personal knowledge of the evidence.

I don't mind people believing in the seas rising 7 metres by 2050 because Al Gore said so, so long as they understand that their belief is based on an unreliable heuristic, and that Science itself utterly rejects all such Argument from Authority. Heuristics are all that non-scientists have, but we must allow them to hold opinions - and Delingpole is at least honest enough to acknowledge his limits. It might make for a more polite and constructive debate if more people showed the same humility.

My guess is that James Delinpole has heard from people he trusts that there are some severe problems with global warming science and that dissenting voices are being suppressed. He concludes that global warming is a scam and, it being his job, he tells everyone so, usually quite loudly. Like Nullius, I see no problems in this and I don't see this as being denialism, any more than all the people in the Skeptic movement [Update: meaning the Skeptic Society, who are , by and large, mainstream on AGW] who accept mainstream global warming views "because the scientists say so".

Human beings seem to like to divide people mentally into "goodies" and "baddies", particularly in matters political. The problem with a politicised science like climatology is that the same mindset can pervade what should be a strictly logical discussion. As one reads the outpourings of the scibloggers about Delingpole, it is clear that this largely left-wing (as far as I can tell) group is that they want to condemn Delingpole largely because he is a man of the right. They scent blood and that has blinded them to the fact that he has reached his opinions on global warming in exactly the same way that, for the most part,  they have. To reiterate Nullius's remarks above, it would make for a more constructive debate if they showed more humility.

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Reader Comments (66)

Name-calling is not debate.

Thank you for being definite on this BH.

As you know, I avoid it, and I wish everyone else would too.

Makes everyone who does it look bad and hands the nightstick to the other party every time.

So let's all stop it, eh?

Richard Drake, spot on as usual.

Feb 1, 2011 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD

Wow! What a great thread. I could go in many directions and get long-winded so will be brief instead.

I don't like it when people shut down a conversation with labels like denier or troll or concern troll or whatever. I think it detracts from the facts of the debate, but who am I do decide or control how someone wants to show up? Let freedom some extent. Ultimately, it does reflect the maturity and skills of the well as the the situation, the environment and the culture that we humans have

I don't want to get too post-modern here...hahaha...but I get annoyed with some folks who use the labels scientific and peer-reviewed within their black and white reasoning as well. I debate a few green folks and they are always bringing up the scientific consensus and the peer-reviewed journals. I understand that there are good scientists out there who know how to do science properly and ethically. I also know that all scientists are human and some are more human than others.

Even the scientific consensus can get stuck. Love Thomas Kuhn here. Science progresses one death at a time. Science always needs new blood and a new generation to progress...and hopefully not digress.

We need to stay in the fight and let the labels roll off our backs. Remember, we're talking about human invention here. Control the debate with facts, not labels. It's amazing the kind of bullsh!t we humans can come up with.

Pep rally anyone?

Feb 1, 2011 at 1:19 PM | Unregistered CommenterKevin

Those who think that if we just make nice and overlook the slurs, everything will work out, have no clue. The alarmists are in this to the bitter end. Their careers are on the line. When they call skeptics "denier", they are trying to shut down the debate before it starts. The ClimateGate emails show that the alarmists have gone to outrageous lengths to avoid debating this fair and square. Over and over they refuse to share their data and algorithms. Over and over they claim the science is settled (Trenberth most recently). Understand your opponents, they have absolutely no interest in debating this. The use of denier is specifically designed to blacken the reputation of skeptics to the vast majority of citizens who don't know diddly about climate science but do know that Holocaust deniers are the worst people on the planet. It is part of a propaganda war. Refusing to fight the propaganda war does not mean that you win, it just means you lose quicker.

The big picture is that this is part of a political struggle for our civilization. The vast majority of the politicians and eco activists (ecofascists seems quite accurate to me but I will use eco activists instead even though it seems limp, weak, and descriptively incomplete) world wide who are invested in global warming alarmism, know nothing and could not care less about the science of global warming. Global warming alarmism is primarily a political movement that uses post normal climate science to accomplish political goals. The alarmists are outraged that they have been stymied in the USA because they justifiably fear their movement will ultimately unravel world wide.

BTW, Delingpole (I put him up there in the Mark Steyn class) is a warrior and should be vigorously supported.

Feb 1, 2011 at 2:41 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Koch


Who said anything about overlooking the slurs? We can respond to slurs, but I would suggest we respond with dignity. My point is that we should not alienate people who might be persuaded to become allies. At the moment, the majority in the UK are convinced of AGW. If we are to prevail we need to persuade some of them to change their views. I humbly submit that yelling at people and calling people names is not a good way to persuade them our views are worth listening to.

Feb 1, 2011 at 2:55 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill




Feb 1, 2011 at 3:05 PM | Unregistered CommenterBBD


There are at least 2 tracks of debate. At one, very high level, there are the debates that you have with open minded, well informed intellectuals. Without doubt, you understand very well how to conduct that debate.

At a much lower (but many orders of magnitude greater volume) level, there is the propaganda war to win the hearts and minds of the public. At that lower level, those who hurl the term "denier" must be shamed not just because they are profoundly wrong but because it is politically expedient to winning the propaganda war because it destroys the reputation of the slanderers.

Feb 1, 2011 at 3:09 PM | Unregistered CommenterSteve Koch

I have a problem with the use of "denier" because I believe it cheapens the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. (I am not Jewish) If Jews aren't offended by the term, here is the way I would use it with reference to warmists. Warmists are:

1. Confirmation Bias Deniers;
2. Long-term planning Deniers; (They fail to acknowledge the almost impossible problems of attempting to plan 100 years in the future. Think Great Leap Forward and the Domino Theory that led to the Vietnam war)
3. Replication Deniers; They don't acknowledge the difficulty of replicating the results of even good experiments. (See recent New Yorker article)

I could go on and on with the irrationalities of the warmists. However, the point is that if the term is turned against them, they will look for another hate filled term to describe realists because they cannot sustain rigorous intellectual argument.


Feb 1, 2011 at 4:24 PM | Unregistered CommenterJD Ohio

I agree with Steve Koch - this is a dirty fight, one deliberately set in motion by alarmists.

It does not matter if they are eco-loons or luke-warmists if the d-word is deployed they should be shamed.

Feb 1, 2011 at 4:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterMac

Bish, I am broadly in agreement with your stance on this - i.e. better to desist from name-calling etc, as a bit of pragmatism can often get a positive result out of a seemingly difficult situation. But I'm not so sure about your assertion that "the majority in the UK are convinced of AGW". Despite the best efforts of the Met Office and BBC, I think there are many more climate sceptics/realists/contrarians than the authorities would like us to believe. The majority will not be active on the blogs or anywhere else of course, but that does not mean they are fully signed up to the decline-hiders' cause. What's needed is a good documentary film maker to come along and look afresh at the whole subject - but ideally focus on the science and not the individuals. For obvious reasons I don't think the anyone in the BBC should get the job. It's a few years since Channel4 fronted the Great GW Swindle - wonder if Martin Durkin could be persuaded to do an post climategate update? His recent film on UK debt was well received. Anyone know any Channel 4 Commissioning editors? Time to go along to the next St Johnstone match perhaps?

Feb 1, 2011 at 4:44 PM | Unregistered Commenterlapogus

I'm with Mac and Steve Koch.

Your Grace's current wish to engage and persuade members of the 'metro elite' is a fool's errand. And, in pursuit of that goal, your attempts to restrain the terminology used by your commenters will drive them to other sites where they feel able to speak more freely. In many cases, that would be a net loss to your blog.

Feb 1, 2011 at 11:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterJane Coles

It is time to step back, calm down and think rationally about the situation.
Those who use derogatory terms, believe that their scientific arguments are either weak, have been disproven or otherwise that they are incapable of winning their case.
So they resort to name calling.

They seek to separate those who use rational analysis from the great general public.
They will only succeed if they get us inflamed and hence make us look like loony louts in the eyes of the general public.

When I was a child I was taught the old nursery rhyme:
“Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.”
That always worked well for me.
So let’s not get distracted by name calling.

Myself, I deny that I can discern any rise in the average annual maximum temperature at a number of well scattered Australian locations, when due allowance is made for UHI.
Call me what you will.
I can produce evidence.

We should just brush off labels with disdain – with ignore and keep using rational arguments.
The battle is nearly won.
The climate (by happenchance) is on our side.
Those trying to change our lifestyle are panicking, on the run.
Let us not seize defeat from the jaws of victory.
We just need to keep on keeping on.

Feb 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM | Unregistered CommenterAusieDan

When I was brung up I was taught to mind my language, especially in Church. The passions of the sportsfield however (player or spectator) often led to intemperate outbursts which were usually ignored, though frowned upon if they started to become habitual.

I think when in the Bishop's precincts we should adopt a suitably composed demeanour, (with perhaps an odd slip permitted) but leave the rough stuff for other venues.

Feb 2, 2011 at 1:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterCumbrian Lad

I should hop on the end of this thread to clarify my position. My comments were not specifically about Flaherty, but were meant to be much more general.

For several years now we Skeptics have been called - with extreme prejudice, I should add - luddites, flat earthers, neanderthals, knuckle-draggers, climate criminals, murderers of generations not yet born, scientific morons, servile shills of big oil, big coal, big tobacco and big just about everything else. I'm jack of it.

And this isn't just from some thick bloke we're unlucky enough to bump into down the pub. It's from politicians big and small, broadcasters, journalists, some scientists and a menagerie of "public intellectuals".

Well, R Drake may choose to turn the other cheek, but I'm pretty sure that will only get him another belting. That's not my style, sorry. On second thoughts, I'm not sorry one bit.

Feb 2, 2011 at 5:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterLevelGaze

Excellent news - there are folk already working on my suggestion above, and Durkin is willing. (Could be a case of great minds think alike but I'll settle for coincidence).

Feb 2, 2011 at 8:02 AM | Unregistered Commenterlapogus

BH: "Matt has pointed to James Delingpole as a "denier", which he defines as someone who rejects the global warming hypothesis on political grounds."

While I think this definition probably does describe some climate sceptics, it needs to be fleshed out to have any value, since it's difficult to discern motive.

In my view, there are two major aspects to the contrarian position that tip a sceptic into denial.

1. Claims of doctored evidence. Those who point to human error, sampling problems, poor instrumentation and the like, in order to discount the evidence for warming, are at least keeping a mind open to the evidence.

Claims of deliberate and widespread doctoring of the evidence are another matter. No amount of rational argument can be persuasive against that claim, because it is based on prior ideological and moral premises, not science.

2. Claims that AGW is the outcome of a prior commitment to an ideological goal, fostered by a sinister and secretive cabal whose ultimate aim is world domination. Again, this claim is not amenable to rational argument.

Not all climate sceptics by any means believe in these claims. However, it's clear that these "hardline" views have influenced even moderate sceptics.

Ideally, AGW proponents and sceptics should set the clock at zero and begin by assuming mutual good faith. I don't see that happening, but worth a thought.

Feb 3, 2011 at 5:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterBrendan H

Thank you for the mention. I've enjoyed talking with you. I have said elsewhere that I will no longer use the words denier or denialist (it's the latter that I've used for people like Delingpole) in the AGW debate. The reason I strongly suspect Delingpole isn't interested in the science is because he doesn't talk about it. He talks about conspiracy theories which cannot be proven. Sure, he refers to scientists occasionally but had he really done his homework he would have referred to other more interesting ones like Henric Svensmark. Delingpole is a goon whose journalism is so shallow that he managed to mistake Simon Singh's background as that of mathematician (he is a physicist) because he wrote a book about Fermat's last theorem. Delingpole sees his Climategate controversy as a great conspiracy. I see no evidence that it is anything more than science cliquishness and stubbornness. I'm not convinced of the global conspiracy (implying deception). The concensus view may well be wrong, but it's not sinister.

Feb 18, 2011 at 5:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterMatt Flaherty

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