Sunday, February 21, 2010

Climate denial and arrogance

I recently became a bit more active on Twitter (find me at @michaelmeadon) and today I had an argument with one Ivo Vegter (@ivovegter), a South African journalist and, more to the point, climate denialist. Vegter is a staunch critic of climate science and he's penned several columns espousing his views, on Climategate, Copenhagen and one answering his critics (among others). I don't have either the time or the inclination to document all the misconceptions, false statements and fallacies Vegter makes in his columns, but I do want to hold forth on intellectual arrogance and share an analogy I put to him regarding expertise. Vegter, you see, is a journalist: he not only has no training in climate science, he has no scientific training at all. He is, apparently, "reasonably familiar with scientific subjects, and ha[s] read...a great deal on the subject of climate change." (Though this does not include, at least from what I can see, reading the scientific literature like respected science journalists do - c.f. Carl Zimmer and Ed Yong). Oddly, he claims "no particular expertise, nor qualifications to challenge professional scientists on matters of high science" but then does exactly that when taking sides between denialists (often non-climate scientist) and proper climate scientists.

As regular readers will know (I keep reminding you...) I recently wrote a long piece praising intellectual deference. The key premises of my argument there was (1) that the universe is hypercomplicated and (2) that intellectual rigor demands robust epistemic justification before forming an opinion. My conclusion was that, given (1), (2) is extremely difficult to fulfill. Intellectual responsibility, then, demands either agnosticism or deference to expert consensus when (2) is not fulfilled. I think it should be obvious that climate science is in fact preposterously complicated. To make up your own mind, all by yourself, about whether human activities cause global climate change, you would need to understand, at a minimum and as far as this particular non-expert can tell, the relevant physical and chemical processes that happen in the atmosphere and how they change, the history of and variations in climatic conditions, the extent and history of anthropogenic greenhouse gasses, and the mathematics that underlie climate models. To form justified opinions about these, in turn, you’d have to know and understand, including all the technical details, a vast body of literature about things like dendroclimatology, meridional overturning circulation, the net radiative forcing of anthropogenic aerosols, and the quasi-biennial oscillation.

Vegter, as far as I know at least, understands none of the above, let alone at an expert level. Yet he espouses an opinion contrary to scientific consensus. (While there is plenty we don't know, the vast majority of the relevant experts agree climate change is anthropogenic). Without properly understanding the methods of science, he claims, absurdly, that "Climategate" shows there is a warmist conspiracy. He adjudicates arguments between scientists and denialists - usually in favor of the latter. All of this, I think, is irresponsible and arrogant in the extreme. As I pointed out in my deference piece:
It is extraordinarily arrogant to have (independent) opinions on complex questions without being willing to pay your dues first – that is, without studying the question for years, reading the scholarly literature, mastering the relevant techniques and mathematics, and so on. Thinking you are entitled to an opinion without paying your dues is the very epitome of intellectual arrogance. And it is especially arrogant – mind-bogglingly so – for a non-expert to have opinions that contradict the consensus of the tens of thousands of intelligent, diligent and dedicated people who have spent decades studying, debating, doing research on and thinking deeply about their respective disciplines. The bottom line: be an expert, defer, or suspend judgment.
There is, I've noticed, an odd inconsistency in lay arrogance about science. I doubt very much Vegter would grab the knife away from a neurosurgeon and start cutting away himself. I doubt Vegter would tell an engineer she's Doing It Wrong and redraw her plans for a bridge. And yet Vegter seems perfectly willing to yell 'bunkum!', 'conspiracy!' and 'fraud!' when it comes to climate science, despite the fact that the topic is arguably much more complicated and the stakes several orders of magnitude higher. Why not watch MegaStructures on Natural Geographic and start an engineering firm? Why not browse through Gray's Anatomy, read a bit of Oliver Sacks and then branch out to neurosurgery? He's done neither physics nor physiology, but seems willing to advise climate scientists on the strength of his ignorance on the former, but not neurosurgeons on the strength of his ignorance in the latter. Why?