I’m still working on revising “down the river with Edward Abbey, part three,” but that’ll have to wait for the moment while I talk about something timely.
I’ve got a friend and colleague who loves to needle me with the latest broadsides from the climate denier camp, and as expected I got an gloating email from him about the current “ClimateGate” controversy, an email that begins with “I knew you would be proved wrong.” Indeed, whole segments of the blogosphere are abuzz with breathless pronouncements of ClimateGate as “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming.'”
I don’t intend here to sort through the details of what the stolen emails contain and what significance the skeptics attach to these various “smoking guns,” but there is, of course, an unambiguous response from the climate science community, which can be seen here, here, and here. It’s quite clear to me that the anti-AGW political noise machine (and echo chamber) is conveniently ignoring a whole universe of context when it cherry-picks and presents tidbits from these emails, and I both recognize and deplore this practice as intellectually dishonest in the extreme (leaving aside the ethics of illegally hacking into and publicizing emails intended for private consumption.) At the same time, I also don’t want to ignore or minimize any potentially unethical behavior on the part of the scientists involved or the climate science community in general; bad behavior on the part of the accusers does not grant blanket absolution on the part of the accused. There are, perhaps, important lessons to be learned. In particular, I agree with the thoughtful and measured critiques of this affair offered by Peter Kelemen at Columbia (a must-read) and, closer to home, Judith Curry at Georgia Tech.
I’m more interested in thinking about the divergent reactions we have to this kind of story. My colleague received this news as “proof” of his oft-stated contention that global warming is some sort of hoax; it fit his preconceived narrative of an eggheaded leftist conspiracy, and that was that. He would no doubt describe the climate science responses that I linked to above as little more than self-serving cover-up. I seriously doubt he will look at them objectively but will instead gravitate toward further commentary that merely reinforces his preconceived beliefs. To be fair, however, I don’t often read the links he sends me any more, either, at least not carefully. Perhaps I am the one trying to protect a preconceived narrative?
The fact is that neither of us are climate scientists, and neither of us are really qualified to sort through the various claims and counter claims and make sense of where the objective truth might lie. We can bury each other with convincing cut-and-paste links until the cows come home, but it would be awfully hard for us to sort out which ones are credible and which ones are rhetorically impressive but basically bogus. Nor do we really have the time. So what is the average lay-person to do? Confronted by the bewildering and contradictory flood of information and misinformation about the issue, is it acceptable to throw your hands in the air and just ignore the issue? Many do. Cling to a preconceived narrative because it suits your ideological leanings? Many do that, too. But are either of these positions responsible, given the stakes? After all, we stand to lose (depending on how the issue is framed) a healthy planet and/or our cherished freedoms and capitalistic system.
My colleague and I cannot both be right. AGW cannot simultaneously be both a serious threat and complete hooey. So if we are to honestly debate the subject, we have to first admit two salient facts: 1) we don’t really know enough personally about the science to know the truth for sure and 2) one (or both) of us will turn out to be wrong. Assuming both of us have the intellectual integrity to modify or abandon our positions based upon credible conflicting data, I think it a fair (and productive) question to ask:
“What would make you change your mind?” (more…)
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