Ideology vs. evidence: An example from a personal experience with climate ‘sceptics’

Late last year I was fortunate enough to attend a talk by Professor Tim Flannery hosted by my local public library. The only downside to a great presentation launching Professor Flannery’s latest book “Here On Earth“, were a couple of rude members of the crowd who loudly proclaimed (thankfully during question time) to all in attendance that they were climate ‘sceptics’. In addition to  not relinquishing the microphone and speaking over the top of other audience members and the guest speaker, this seemed to distinguish them quite neatly from the rest of the crowd, who had not felt the need to express the ideologies by which they view the world.

It was more than apparent that these two  ‘sceptics’  were not looking to evaluate evidence or discuss findings; they seemed to just want to be heard and believed, regardless of the answers presented.

The evidence for human caused climate change is there to be evaluated; accepting it or dismissing it is each of our prerogatives as is establishing personal standards of evidence.

While the overwhelming majority of scientists in the field are gathering, analysing and verifying evidence, publishing their research in peer reviewed journals and getting on with their work, they are sharply contrasted with the fringe individuals that contribute nothing more than empty rhetoric, threats and confusion.

I see the same rejection of evidence within AGW denial communities as I do with those who deny the evidence that dinosaurs became extinct millions of years before humans existed. The scientific consensus is strong and well founded in both cases, and in both cases it is being illogically overlooked, ignored, mocked and derided by those whose ideology permits if not demands such behaviour.

Now to be really, clear I do not mean every single person who harbors questions and/or doubts (AGW agnostics for instance). I mean the loud public voices of dissent like Ian Plimer and those who cherry pick the research rather than actually following the many converging lines of evidence, from diverse and varied fields, diverse and varied institutions and diverse and varied scientists.

For example it’s really worth checking out the great resources NASA has available here, here,
and for more details and the most up to the minute data, here.
Some good detail on the A in AGW can be found here.

On face value I understand people’s reluctance to put stock in scientific consensus, knowing full well that science while being many things, is not a democratic process. It’s easy to reject a consensus as something put forward in lieu of evidence, but there would also need to be evidence that this was indeed what was occurring, rather than the same process which accepts and rejects ideas on the basis of their data, replication and predicative power taking place, eventually over time leading to what is termed consensus among the scientific community.

There is also scientific consensus that the Earth is spherical (roughly), that we orbit the Sun, and that all life on this planet shares a common ancestor, and in every case the consensus is arrived at through the accumulation of evidence.

However the very idea of a scientific consensus being emphasised so strongly to the world’s media is unusual. I can only recall one other time that it has been deemed necessary by the academies of science to issue such a thing; in defence of the integrity of science from Biblical literalists (creationists) and Intelligent Design proponents. The scientific community in general is not accustomed to having to engage in political public debate, rather expecting the evidence to speak for itself.

For instance the 2005 position statement from the National Academy of Sciences begins

Climate Change is real”

and is endorsed by no less than the National Academy of Sciences, United States of America (obviously), the Chinese Academy of Sciences-China, the Royal Society-United Kingdom, the Russian Academy of Sciences-Russia, the Academia Brasiliera de Ciências- Brazil, the Royal Society of Canada-Canada, Academié des Sciences-France, Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher-Germany, Indian National Science Academy-India, Accademia dei Lincei-Italy and the Science Council of Japan.

Not to be outdone, the Royal Society (UK) released a statement declaring

The work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) represents the consensus of the international scientific community on climate change science. We recognise IPCC as the world’s most reliable source of information on climate change and its causes”.

This one was endorsed by Australian Academy of Sciences, Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Sciences and the Arts, Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Royal Society of Canada, Caribbean Academy of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, German Academy of Natural Scientists : Leopoldina, Indian National Science Academy, the Indonesian Academy of Sciences, Royal Irish Academy, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Italy), Academy of Sciences Malaysia, Academy Council of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and of course the Royal Society (UK).

Of course this in no-way counts as evidence on its own, it merely represents an overwhelming certainty amongst the best and brightest scientific minds of all time.

As we all know the gold standard of scientific credibility is the peer review journal.
Now if there was a genuine (by which I mean verifiable, evidence based) rejection of the vast evidence for AGW, peer reviewed journals would be where this would take place right?

While I didn’t have time to trawl through a database search myself, Naomi Oreskes from the Department of History and Science Studies Program, University of California at San Diego did!

Naomi performed an ISI database search with the keyword phrase “global climate change” and surveyed the abstracts she found that had been published between 1993 and 2003 in refereed scientific journals.
She then divided the 928 papers she found into six categories:

1. Explicit endorsement of the consensus position (Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities)

2. Evaluation of impacts

3. Mitigation proposals

4. Methods

5. Paleoclimate analysis

6. Rejection of the consensus position (Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities)

Naomi found that none of the papers fell into the last category while 75% fell into the first three. I should also point out that the start date of the analysis was prior to the 1995 IPCC report, let alone the more recent IPCC reports.

I can’t recommend highly enough this excellent talk given by Peter Ellerton (winner of the 2008 Australian Skeptics prize for Critical Thinking) on the Climate Change debate. You’re encouraged to examine the way in which the debate is being run and scrutinise your own convictions as to why you may have taken the position you hold, if any!

Personally I would much prefer Climate Change and AGW to be an error, a hoax, a conspiracy, or any one of the mundane explanations put forward by others that would also prefer it not to be true, however I’m unable to be intellectually honest and do that on the balance of the copious evidence available.  As the Australian Skeptics position statement on “climate change skeptics” says:

It has always been the Australian Skeptics’ position that people should make up their minds based on the evidence. This position becomes even more important when what should be a completely scientific issue is used by politically-motivated groups to further their causes, often in the face of contradictory evidence.

People who are not experts in fields related to climate science should seek the best available evidence, as judged by those who are experts in relevant fields. While everyone is entitled to their own opinion, not everyone is entitled to be taken seriously. On the very important and very complex questions of climate change and its causes, only the carefully formed opinions of relevantly qualified experts should be taken seriously.

As in all fields of science, expertise emerges out of experience and through the peer-review process, not through media appearances or political connections.”

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