Ignorant Commentators, Aggrieved Boffins and Salaried Liars

I am reading Fred Pearce‘s the Last Generation at the moment, and it’s great.  Like Bill Bryson in his Short History of Nearly Everything, Pearce is a master of tying the scientific data he wishes to convey into a human-centered narrative.  Pearce does not ask the reader to absorb an endless stream of impersonal facts and figures, but to picture Charles David Keeling scrambling to the top of a Hawaiian volcano to measure CO2 background levels in the atmosphere every four hours for almost fifty years – even missing the birth of his first child to avoid a gap in the data set.  This humanistic style of transmitting scientific wisdom is the standard for my favourite popular science writers but was catastrophically absent from my school text books – in fact, I didn’t even realize science was interesting until Bryson explained it to me.  Now it seems I can’t get enough.

I’ve only just started reading the Last Generation, but one sentence in it got the pistons of my mind firing so loudly I had to put it down and write a blog post, even though I’m unable to access the internet in my new abode (thanks, BT, you fools).  This may see the light tomorrow if I can find some form of storage device that can bypass the draconian security features of my work PC, otherwise it will have to wait for our service call to BT to circumnavigate the globe four or five times, probably in a bottle.

So here’s the sentence that got me thinking:

“Most [climate change] sceptics… fall into one of three categories: political scientists, journalists and economists with little knowledge of climate science; aggrieved and retired boffins who find their old teachings disturbed; and salaried scientists with overbearing bosses to serve, like oil companies and governments in hock to them.”

For brevity, I will rename these three categories the Ignorant, the Disgruntled, and the Paid Liars.

Realizing the folksy wisdom of this assessment, I saw in a flash that I have been completely neglecting a tiny but significant category of climate change sceptics in my debates with people who insist the threat of global warming is not real.  I have been lumping all the climate change sceptics who happen to be scientists into the category of Paid Liars and unwittingly denied the existence of the Disgruntled.  I have done this because it is so easy to debunk the Paid Liars and the Ignorant.  (I have Exxon’s financial contributions to “non-profit” organizations bookmarked.)

But how do you rebut the Disgruntled?  To my knowledge, there is no online watchdog group that keeps track of the personal feelings, fears and neuroses that might influence people’s opinions on man-made climate change.

Perhaps I have been detracting from my own credibility as a reasonable person with a logical point of view by consistently arguing that every scientist who happens to be a climate change sceptic is in the pocket of Big Oil.  While most of the time I can prove this, very occasionally I can’t.  Sometimes someone cites the findings of a climate change sceptic who, for all my research, appears to be a genuine, credentialed scientist – sometimes even in a vaguely relevant field of study – and can not be easily shown to be receiving wheelbarrows full of cash from oil companies (yet).  Although these references are extremely rare, I have never known how to handle them, and it has bothered me.

So what gives?  Most of us can SEE climate change happening for ourselves.  If we live by the coast we can watch the sea level creep up, look at satellite photos of disappearing ice sheets and tropical islands, count floods and hurricanes from one year to the next, and deduce with very little effort or research that the proverbial shit is hitting the proverbial fan, big time.  How can anyone who has built a career on the scientific principle of noticing things question whether the climate is rapidly changing?

In Bryson’s Short History of Nearly Everything I came across a concept I will paraphrase as: new scientific theories gain general acceptance when old scientists die.  I mentioned this to Paul over at Cafe Philos and he recommended that I read the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which elaborates on this concept.  (It’s on my shelf, Paul, but I haven’t cracked it yet.)  Seems reasonable though:  I can easily accept the evidence that the climate is changing because I haven’t invested my entire life in teaching others that this is not the case.  If I had, I might feel very differently.

Anyway, disgruntled old scientists who are not in the pocket of Big Oil but still espouse climate change scepticism for mysterious personal reasons seem to demand a specialised debate tactic – a tactic that appears to me absent from cyber-discussion (as much as I am able to recall it from those bygone days when we had the internet.)  It seems that many of us have some difficulty being able to say “this guy appears to be legitimate, but in light of the near-unanimous scientific concensus on this issue, he also appears to be wrong.”  Instead, we insinuate he must be on the payroll.  It simplifies things.  When we are trying to persuade others to accept the worrying findings of scientists, it obscures the message somewhat to admit that scientists can sometimes be wrong.

So how do we challenge seemingly independent, credentialed, published, reputable scientists who just can not let go of their late 19th century notions that climate change resulting from atmospheric CO2 is probably going to be gradual and pleasant, or that nature can easily absorb an unlimited amount of human waste?

To do so we have to acknowledge that science is not simply an impersonal collection of factual data, as our school textbooks would have us believe.  Science is also a human narrative, and as such scientists are as susceptible as we are to emotion, obstinacy, denial and catastrophic error as the rest of us.

This is awkward territory for people who deeply desire an urgent, collective response to climate change.  If science too is a human narrative and prone to error, what is the difference between science and religion?