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Asymmetry

There is often an asymmetry in the public debates over science and other reality-based subject areas. By that I mean that one side has to stick to a set of rules which limit its ability to attack the opposition and the other side enjoys free rein to say whatever they want. Look at the climate change “debate” as an example: the science side (those who agree with the consensus that climate change is real) have to stick to well proved science and the smallest deviations from this are severely criticised. But the other side (the denialists) can use political opinion, cherry picked evidence, discredited theories and any other form of misinformation which suits their purposes.

It’s not just in climate change of course. No discussion of professional lying would be complete without a reference to creationists. They are the original organised professional liars and have shown everyone else how to do it. And the other obvious parallel is the tobacco industry propaganda campaign against the dangers of smoking. That was very similar campaign and the motivation (for greater profit no matter what the consequences on the majority of people) was the same.

But if the tactics these groups employ are so transparently dishonest why do they enjoy quite significant levels of support? It’s simple really: they tell people what they want to hear and those people want to be deceived. That idea may sound rather ridiculous but it’s basically true. There is no, or very little, debate amongst people who understand the subjects involved and are prepared to give the evidence rational and fair treatment. It’s the ignorant and the biased groups in society who create the “debate” (and I use the word debate in inverted commas because it’s not a real debate at all).

The asymmetry argument was used in a recent interview I heard with Michael Mann who is a well known climate scientists and has been involved with several controversies, especially the “hockey stick” graph and “Climategate”. He claimed the science side has maintained its decorum while the opposition fights in the gutter, is well funded and well organised, and many of the attacks are organised by groups (such as fossil fuel industry) who have a lot to lose if climate change is taken seriously.

I know it sounds like a conspiracy theory but remember that not all conspiracies are untrue. The vast majority of them are but some aren’t. It seems that this one isn’t because memos from the fossil fuel industry on strategies to combat the science were found and publicised by the mainstream media in the early 2000s.

So what are these unfair strategies that the opponents of climate change science use? First, I should emphasise that there are a few people who have genuine concerns about the validity of climate science. But they are very rare and the vast majority object for political, economic, or religious reasons. None of these reasons are valid. Science is based on verifiable fact and the only way to credibly dispute science is to use more science. There’s almost no credible science which contradicts the consensus held by the majority of expert in this area.

One of the most effective ways the deniers attack the science is to find minor points of uncertainty or even minor errors in the science and escalate these out of all proportion and suggest they invalidate the science overall. The error in the IPCC report suggesting Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 is an example. Why is that not particularly valid as a way to attack climate science? First, it’s one small point in a huge (3000 page) report; second, it’s a point which doesn’t come from the science but from the associated bureaucracy (the IPCC); third, no climate science depends on glaciers melting for its validity; and fourth, the glaciers are melting but just not that quickly.

The more intelligent and knowledgeable members of the denial community must know all these points yet they continue to use this method of attack. That’s just fundamentally dishonest and shows how deeply disingenuous the deniers really are.

Another tactic commonly used is to pay political advocates to influence policy, both in government and in sources of relevant information. There are cases Mann cited where very poorly researched scientific papers have been published because of pressure on editorial boards. These papers have been discredited by the scientific establishment but the fact that they exist at all can be used for its propaganda value by the denialists. And the cases where reports were “adjusted” by biased people in the Bush administration are well documented.

IP addresses of commenters on blogs have been traced to political activist organisations. That’s OK because everyone has the right to comment, but it should be understood that these comments come from organisations which are committed to denying climate change no matter what the facts say and they have a financial commitment to that view.

But deniers are forced into using tactics like these because they have already lost the real scientific debate. They have few real facts on their side so they must resort to misinformation and outright lies. Remember that their target audience doesn’t really care if the information they are fed is true or not because they are approaching the subject from a political perspective, not a scientific one.

Most people would have no problem with engaging in a political debate on the subject. But they should start by admitting that the science says climate change is happening and that humans are almost certainly the cause. From there they can go on to whether we should try to prevent it getting worse or try to mitigate the effects, or if we are going to intervene how should that happen and should the rich countries bear more of the burden than the poor. These are fair political questions but pretending the problem doesn’t exist is just totally counterproductive.

It’s rare to hear an interview with a scientist where genuine resentment is so obviously expressed. Mann was just totally surprised and baffled about how people could be taken in by such obvious nonsense. Yet he shouldn’t have been. The majority of people in the world believe in some sort of rubbish: religion, new-age spiritualism, UFOs, government conspiracies, the list goes on. Maybe working in an environment where rationality rules protects most scientists from the blatant nonsense that people (like myself) who have an interest in the paranormal experience.

It’s obvious that climate scientists are being pressured by self-interested groups around the world. This really is a global conspiracy and one which could be far more dangerous to the world as a whole than any imaginary conspiracy from the past!

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