“Families of climate scepticism”

So begins the title of a new post that Warren Pearce has up at the blog titled “Making Science Public”, in which he briefly lays out his view on different types of climate change skepticism existing out there, arguing that they are not a collective monolith, and also making some points about labeling people who hold certain viewpoints.

This discussion looks potentially promising in that at least it’s not an off-the-rails type of thing that is so common on the web. You can get an idea of one of the roots of hostility on this topic just by reading the first twenty or so comments, but the author appears to want to get at a genuine understanding of the situation. Gavin Schmidt of NASA makes a helpful comment regarding his view, as do some others who view things differently. This kind of discussion is necessary and, along with Gavin, I wish Warren Pearce success in it.

I note as a further thought though that many of the comments consist mostly of the same old opinionated assertions so typical of these discussions and which go absolutely nowhere but down.

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4 thoughts on ““Families of climate scepticism”

  1. Jim,
    Thanks for the link. (Although you should start it with “http://” otherwise WordPress creates a URL which starts with that of the current post.)

    Tamsin Edwards had a different taxonomy of skeptics here, in which you might be interested.

    Gavin’s claim of “a priori demonisation of models” is interesting, but I think misguided. I agree that there is a class of commenters for whom models, as a class, have become irretrievably tainted. At *this point* then, model results are immediately discounted. I wouldn’t say this is a priori though; it is the effect of exposure to repeated predictive failures. (Perhaps also to some climate-change models which are not credible on the face of it.) Gavin is quite naturally protective of GCMs, and it is perhaps unfair to paint them with the same broad brush. However, it is true that, as a group, they have over-predicted warming in general; and the continual touting of new results as if they were incontrovertible — until a contradictory result appears — does not help their reputation. My own take is that GCMs model something very much like climate, but they are not yet accurate enough to rely upon in any quantitative way.

    • Thanks for the link Harold, looks worthwhile. Broken link fixed also.

      I have no problem with any criticisms of GCMs or anything else, as long as they are well informed and grounded, which takes a pretty good level of expertise/familiarity. And while I won’t put words in Gavin’s mouth, I would guess he feels pretty strongly the same way. It’s when people castigate all models without good reason, or think that only empirical data counts as “true science”, that the problems arise. My opinion is that GCM validity is one of the trickiest of all topics to discuss in the climate change arena, because models serve several different purposes and are almost always works in progress. That’s true for the art of modeling in general in science of course.

  2. HaroldW-

    Thanks for the link – I’d read it, but mostly forgotten about it. Tamsin’s taxonomy is a good general framework for Pearce’s discussion, which mostly seems to be a descriptive depth of her ‘unconvinced’ and ‘lukewarmer’ groups. Both taxonomys are, of course, too general to cover all the nuances of individual opinion/knowledge/belief, but as long as they are used as a starting point and not a definition, both could be very useful in creating an atmosphere for discussion.

    [To expand a little, I’ll add that I believe that no complete taxonomy can ever be drawn of the varied camps relating to any human endeavour – we are far too complex for that. A taxonomy can be useful as a starting point, though, if treated as descriptive, not prescriptive. Kind of like models, I guess – “All models are wrong, but some are useful”.]

    Jim –

    I had much the same reaction as HaroldW to Gavin’s comments, and really can’t improve on it so won’t even try. However, I will agree with you that there is a faction willing to take the imperfections of models as reason to dismiss them without understanding them – and that’s not just wrong, but willfully ignorant. Still, I would like to add that I have the same low opinion of that faction that will defend the purity and truth of models, again with no attempt to understand them. Tamsin would, I think, classify these two groups as ‘unbelievers’ vs. ‘believers’.

    To use a (probably annoying) example, look at what happens whenever Hansen’s 1988 projection is brought up at a blog: one side leaps to attack it as wrong, wrong, wrong and therefore indicting all of Hansen’s work; the other goes into rhetorical overdrive to show that he was prescient in all his utterings. Neither side is correct, of course: modelling is, as you observe, a work in progress, and this is an insanely complex problem. That he was as close as he was is a tribute to his scientific abilities. That he missed is a tribute to the complexity of the problem. [What I’d really wish for is the adults on both sides to be more public and proactive in slapping down their respective ignorati.]

    As a side note, thanks for the kind words over at Tom’s place – though I’m not sure I deserve them, as I’m more than willing to use your work as a tool to hammer the opposition with. I just like to understand my tools, I guess..

    • I think you’re describing well what happens when people align themselves into camps that have viewpoints, and then allowing themselves to be overly influenced by those viewpoints instead of forming their own. Happens all the time in human society unfortunately. It’s OK to align ourselves with groups (sometimes you have to I’d say), but it has to be made 100% clear that we retain our right to disagree on anything at any time, and this is non-negotiable. I agree with you that believing or not believing in models, or anything else for that matter, is wrong if you don’t understand exactly what is you are, or are not, believing in.

      Really like your summary of Hansen’s work there, very well put. In fact, I’d say the best short summary I’ve seen yet.

      And I’d add that I have much respect for good modellers, which in many respects is at the heart of what science is all about, and requires serious skill and intelligence. Trying to communicate this to many non-scientists is very difficult.

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