One of the most interesting conversations I’ve had in my recent travels has been with professor M. Professor M lamented the fact that the public doesn’t have any idea what the real disagreements among scientists look like. This is not the greatest tragedy of the success of climate denialism, I suppose, but it’s not one to be sniffed at, and it’s part of a larger pattern which allows muddled thinking to prevail. As a consequence of lack of exposure to informed disagreement, people do not know how to disagree; how the give and take of argument can be made most productive, under which cricusmtances to bend, under which circumstances to yield, and when, on the other hand, to press the point and go for a retreat on the part of the opponent.
Politically influenced debate simply doesn’t yield. It offers no political advantage – one loses a constituency one had lined up without gaining much with the constituency that the opponent has claimed. This is why congressional “debate” and “testimony” is mostly for show. I wonder when the last time a representative in any democracy was convinced by anything said in formal debate on the floor of the legislative chamber. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was centuries ago. “Debate” is not discourse. It is not aimed at the person you are discussing with; it is aimed at third parties.
One of the great vulnerabilities of scientists in dealing with politicians is that we love discourse. We love intelligent disagreement. Intelligent disagreement is how we get our work done.
Yet we are in a political battle, a battle for the highest imaginable stakes. So one might argue that we need to show solidarity. Indeed, one is often criticized not intellectually but ethically for raising uncertainties in public. After all, any disagreement or even perceived disagreement on any point might be maliciously cast as “disbelieving in global warming”.
I think prof M was arguing for more public contrarianism. People should actually be able to see disagreements, and see the whole zoo of ways in which they work out (and not just the most useless ones, of which there are examples aplenty).
For instance, what are GCMs good for, and what not? There’s plenty of disagreement there. I hold opinions outside the mainstream. Many of us feel that the much-displayed 20th century simulation results are misleading. The question as to how to say so, and how to argue it out, without giving too much ammunition to the shallow and shabby opposition is fraught.
When I hear the word “contrarian” in a climate context I expect the next two words in the sentence to be “Richard Lindzen”, just as “wreak” leads to “havoc” or “fell” as an adjective leads to “swoop”. But Lindzen, though nowhere near as ignorant as his allies, is not a useful contrarian. At this point what Lindzen does is not argument, it is just contradiction.
So the question is whether and how to create useful debates among scientists and the scientifically informed that will be accessible both practically and intellectually to a larger audience. The risks are clear, but what we say will be systematically misinterpreted regardless.
I am very much inclined to the contrarian role. Sometimes (the Wikileaks thing) I am not even sure what I think. I’m just trying to ask questions that clarify the matter for myself.
Other times, I see the opposition as having just a smidgen of a minor point, and am horrified to see a weak position being systematically defended: this pulls the whole nature of what we are doing into question. (The 20th century GCM simulations for instance say something, but what exactly is that? And how should we best address the lag between T and CO2 in the glacial record?)
So when I had some discomfort with the CNN article featuring Gavin Schmidt, I had the choice between voicing it and keeping it quiet. In practice, it turns out that I did the right thing, because my critique elicited some excellent comments from Gavin and others. The conversation also elicited from me a clarification of my discomfort with the original article.
However, I think you might be reading a little more into this than is there though. What I am arguing for is science that is based on what real policies can do. I am not talking about targets, or focuses or one component vs another. Rather that any actual, practical thing that a government puts in place should be assessed against a range of benchmarks – including CO2 emissions of course, but also including the impact of short-lived species on climate and air pollution, and on other aspects of life/environment that people care about.
Each individual might value weight the various outcomes differently, but where there are options that can be supported by more than one constituency, it is clearly going to be easier to move forward.
It’s hard to think of anything more reasonable than that. Certainly I have no objection. My concern can be boiled down to this:
For example, we may argue for wind-driven electricity powering electric cars because of the national security aspect of imported oil, when in fact we are interested in the climate aspect. Others may enthusiastically support our argument and then use it to support coal-to-liquids, or Canadian tar sands.
Then suppose we turn around and say, “well we didn’t mean *that* because of the climate implications!” This would seem to mean that we were lying about (some of) our motivations in the first place. So we’d get the extra greenhouse gases and the loss of credibility, and only the secondary problem (security of liquid fuel supply) would end up addressed.
I think the conversation makes it clear that this sort of thinking (which I think is quite Lomborgesque) was NOT Gavin’s intent. I remain convinced that this kind of thinking does exist and provides us with a very slippery slope. As scientists, we must advocate for evidence and truth at the expense of all other values. To fail to do so is to fail to do our job as scientists.
(The fact that it has become necessary for us to act as advocates is both interesting and unfortunate, but that’s a topic for another day. Nevertheless, honesty trumps effectiveness or we aren’t bringing our core value to the table; we become just another interest group.)
I have nothing against what Gavin said subject to the clarification, though. One can’t control how a reporter will cast what one says. I consider the matter resolved. Both my point and Gavin’s stand as somewhat refined, and as far as I know we have no disagreement.
I do want to point out that me acting on my discomfort rather than going with an impulse to solidarity has, at least in this case, had a beneficial effect.