BPSDB The Plimer / Monbiot debate saga continues. In brief, climate change Denier Ian Plimer challenged prominent (climate) journalist George Monbiot to a debate. Monbiot accepted but with the condition of the submission of written questions prior to the debate. Monbiot submitted a rational and reasonable set of questions directly related to Plimer’s book. Plimer responded with juvenile and irrelevant bafflegab.
What does the Plimer Monbiot debate tell us about how we approach educating the public about climate change / global warming? Is there anything more of interest to learn from the Plimer farce? can his recent infamy inform our efforts to better educate the public? are there any take away lessons?
Drops the wind and stops the mill
As reported earlier Deep Climate submitted a complaint to the Australian Broadcasting Company about giving Plimer a soapbox when they know full well he is distorting and misrepresenting the facts. Predictably the outcome is not satisfactory.
So not only does ABC management refuse to correct Plimer’s egregious errors, but they categorically refuse even to allow a rebuttal. Even worse, it is crystal clear that ABC management knew that Plimer’s assertions were likely to be rubbish, as their own star journalist had demonstrated Plimer’s penchant for deception just a few months before. And yet ABC still offered Plimer a venue where he could spew his disinformation without effective challenge, implicitly validating his assertions as plausible.
No doubt ABC has reasons along the lines of ‘it is not our role to judge who is right or wrong, but in the interests of democracy … blah blah … fair and balanced … blah blah.” The trouble is that the argument is true enough per se and hence credible to the ABC and many others, but at the same time not actually lived up to.
Every issue “has more than one side to it.” That is axiomatic. Even so, these days stories on domestic violence do not provide platforms for those advocating spouse beating, stories on hate crimes don’t give the pro-racism perspective, etc (although they did until fairly recently).
Which is to say the media self-identifies as neutral when choosing how to cover topics which are “controversial”, but totally subjective when choosing which topics to be “neutral” about. This allows them to indulge all of their biases without ever considering whether they are biased, and whether the bias is rational or justified.
The media are a necessary and even critical player in the socio-political struggle around climate change, but they will never be our ally. Individual journalists may be, even individual media outlets, but never “the media.”
For what it’s worth they are not the friend of the Deniers either. Like some adolescent celebrity they need the public attention and will do what they think they have to in order to get it. They may seem to be the ones in control, but in the end it is they who need the public, not vice versa. Consciously or not they know this and will behave accordingly.
Lesson reaffirmed: The media is not and will never be on our side. Like all corporations they do and always will serve a different set of priorities. We can and should use that to our advantage when we can, but that’s all the relationship will ever be.
Gild the farthing if you will
Coby Beck’s recent How wrong does Plimer have to be? responds to a Denier challenge of “how anyone can judge it [Plimer's book] if they have not read it.” What’s interesting about the exchange has nothing to with Plimer’s book at all. Coby makes a number of perfectly sensible and reasonable arguments, but does not mention the obvious logical fallacy underpinning the challenge.
The challenge begs the counter question ‘how can the challenger be critical of climate science if they have not read it all?’ Indeed, how could Plimer? Of course reading all of the evidence for climate science is both impossible and unnecessary, but if that is the standard then it should be applied equally to everyone in all cases.
The real issue is whether Coby’s critique is informed, factual, and accurate, which it clearly is, whereas Plimer’s critique of climate science is none of the above. Maybe Coby recognized this logical flaw and just choose to ignore it. Regardless, I believe the challengers did not realize the flaw, and genuinely believed their challenge to be a perfectly reasonable.
The argument has a very high emotional appeal as it seems to be supported by the necessity of personal experience. For this reason it is also a very convincing argument when used with the general public. That we all equally know that the alleged logic is utterly ridiculous (eg how do you know sawing your leg off with a rusty spoon isn’t fun unless ….) in no way undermines with the appeal and effectiveness of the argument.
I suspect one reason that we often miss how effective these appeals are is that we expect the general public to see the illogic of the argument just as we do. The flaw in that assumption is that we are often not honest about how we saw the flaw in the first place.
The fact is that we often do not immediately see the flaws ourselves, but rather the conclusion conflicts with what we “know to be true” about the science so we a posteriori go back over the argument to discover how it is wrong. This may be done in a moment, but if we are honest it is often the actual process by which we discover flaws. By contrast the public do not have the same baseline of what they “know to be true” about the science, so they are not going to critically examine the argument.
Lesson reaffirmed: The argument that works is what seems convincing in the moment regardless of it’s actual validity. That’s not going to change.
Jackdaws strut in peacock’s feathers
In summary, the relevance of these questions is extremely low, and even when the basic question deals with an issue that is relevant, the question itself is usually nonsensical and presupposes many assumptions that are certainly not a given (at least in the real world). In fact, for the couple of cases where the scientific content is high, the answer is in contradiction to Plimer’s unstated assumptions. The most obvious use of these questions to support a ‘we don’t know everything, so we must know nothing’ type of argument, which is a classic contrarian trope, and one that is easily dealt with.
Predictably upon closer scrutiny Plimer’s incoherent gibberish is revealed to be incoherent gibberish. However, there is a problem. Gavin’s analysis is valuable and fun, but ultimately I doubt that it changes much of anything.
The more informed among us already knew Plimer’s question were nonsense. To anyone familiar with the issue that was immediately obvious. To the broader public Plimer’s questions seemed credible enough even though they did not understand them. As per the critique by Stephanie Zvan at Quiche Moraine (discussed here), most will not read Gavin’s analysis, and even if they did it would still mean nothing to them. To them it boils down to Plimer’s word against Schmidt’s since they both appear to have a scientific basis for their claims.
That being said, the analysis is a welcome contribution as there will be some people knowledgeable enough to understand it and objective enough to assess it rationally. For them the analysis will be an important factor in determining where the truth lies, and they in turn will be credible to some others.
Lesson reaffirmed: Bogus though it may be, “victory” in the broader debate is often going to be based on who is the more credible authority to the public, not on what is actually true.
I could talk like that for ever
I briefly toyed with the idea of deconstructing just some of Plimer’s work by documenting all of the logical fallacies that he uses, but abandoned the idea as Herculean and pointless.
Herculean because there are so many logical errors it is mind boggling. In many cases single statements consist of multiple fallacies and errors intertwined such that just untangling them was a significant task, never mind discussing each one.
Pointless for the same reason as mentioned above, viz based on other factors the average person would either take my word or not. Hardly anyone would recognize whether my claim that statement X was a Disjunctive Syllogism was true or not, and they surely aren’t going to work through it to find out.
Nonetheless the impulse was revelatory. I wanted to do it in the naive belief that this would somehow be convincing, or at least further evidence of Plimer’s irrelevance. I presume the belief is based on the fact that I would find it convincing if I were in their place.
What I was missing was that a) I would find it convincing because I accept that logical coherence is necessary to demonstrate truth, b) I accept logic as an authority, and c) I have the background that allows me to rationally assess the truth of such arguments. The average person does not necessarily accept a) and/or b), and lacks c). For all intents and purposes my argument would count no more than if I were to simply spew scientific sounding nonsense like Plimer does.
Lesson reaffirmed: We’re just like everybody else, just with different labels and sources for what we accept as credible and authoritative.
Though to catch your drift I’m striving
Thanks to Deltoid I was made aware of this review of Plimer’s book by Bob Ward. The review documents some of the more ridiculous examples of Plimer’s errors, and if you have been following the Plimer issue there is little new there. However, Ward goes on to speculate how it is that Plimer got so much so wrong:
One could assume, charitably, that he simply overextended himself and strayed beyond his own technical knowledge and competence into areas, such as atmospheric physics, that he may have been unable to grasp properly. But he has a solid academic reputation, with awards for his research and membership of a number of learned bodies.
Since most of the public will never examine or understand the actual evidence we inevitably wind up using some version of appeal to authority to convince them, ie ‘believe us because we use facts and science.’ However, this credibility argument simultaneously legitimizes at least some of the Deniers as they make the same claims, apparently with the same credential.
The public perception of who and what scientists” are is actually complicated and nuanced even though they are not aware of it. Paradoxically they find it quite credible to believe that millions of scientists might be money grubbing hacks who lie about research for personal gain, but inconceivable that a few dozen Deneirs might be; after all, they are scientists!
Part of the answer lies in our habit of giving more weight to the personal over the abstract, although this is contextual. This is why so many found the anecdote of the 90 year old chain smoker to be more compelling evidence about the health affects of tobacco than hundreds of studies involving tens of thousands of people.
In the same vein, while the fact of the scientific consensus on climate change is a useful argument in some contexts, it has less weight than the word of an apparent authority who has a name and a perceived personality. We feel that at some level we “know” the latter, and we almost always trust the known over the unknown.
Lesson reaffirmed: Since the public is not in a position to ascertain what “the facts” are, appeals to “the facts” are a dubious tactic at best. Competing for public confidence consists largely of image (cf Kennedy Nixon debate) and real politik.
shall learn the truth with sorrow
The public understands the world largely through narratives; “myths” if you will, but that term has particular meaning in the climate debate so I will avoid it. It is how we all necessarily operate since we cannot know everything.
The scientist who knows all there is to know about the troposphere may actually understand the brain as little more than a mysterious black box. They will take it on faith that there is a huge amount of science underlying neurosurgery to remove a tumor, but it is a belief, they don’t actually know.
One narrative would be the authority of science and scientists. This idea became particularly strong in the mid 1900s and has even become part of the problem. One source of climate complacency is the belief that science will solve the issue without anyone having to actually do anything, much like Y2K seemed to be solved without any apparent public effort.
A counter narrative is the Galileo fallacy, the idea of the lone rebel scientist(s) who is right while the monolith of institutionalized science clings to a false orthodoxy. The Deniers play this one for all it’s worth, and it is effective. For most people neither narrative has an empirical or even logical basis. They are taken on faith, just as most of life is. Even the obvious contradiction is not seen as a problem.
The work we are doing is necessary, but not sufficient. Collectively we tend to fight the tactical battles based on facts and truth while imagining that the larger war will be won by simply applying the same principles on a larger scale. It won’t.
We need a more explicit recognition of the fact that “the war” is between competing narratives, and that while our tactics can work within that, it is not a given that they do. We need to be more sophisticated in our social analysis and and create a strategy based on the political and social realities rather than our idealized notion of what they should be.
I am not saying that we should abandon facts and a commitment to truth. In my ethical frame the moment we do that we have already lost. However, we do have to be more subtle and skilled in how we approach this conflict. Simply put, we need a coherent strategy based on real politik.
This warming trend has been particularly pronounced during the pre-monsoon month of May, which is now on average 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was in the late 1970’s. The Indian Ocean warmed to a much lesser extent during this period, enhancing the temperature gradient between the ocean and the land. Earth Gauge
We give our consent every moment that we do not resist.
Denier “Challenge” aka Deathwatch Update: Day 301 … still no evidence.
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