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The distinction between true scepticism and denial

By Don Aitkin | September 4, 2016

I came across the phrase in the title, and followed a link to a recent journal article which for once was available on open access. Entitled ‘Science and the Public: Debate, Denial, and Skepticism’,  it looked interesting. You can read it here. The four authors come from different fields, and propose to outline ‘the distinction between true scepticism and denial’. They also offer some guidelines to help researchers, and interested members of the public, decide how to deal with enquiries, on the one hand,  and problems which people see in published science, on the other.

The reader is brought into the area of ‘climate change’ at once. The controversy surrounding climate change is just one example of a polarized public debate that seems remote and detached from the actual state of science: Within the scientific community, there is a pervasive consensus that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions (Anderegg, Prall, Harold, & Schneider, 2010; Cook et al., 2013; Doran & Zimmerman, 2009; Oreskes, 2004; Shwed & Bearman, 2010), but outside science there is entrenched denial of this fact in some sectors of society (e.g., Dunlap, 2013; Lewandowsky, Gignac, & Oberauer, 2013).               [my emphasis]

Whoops! Substantively, ‘climate change’ is not simply whether the planet has warmed through greenhouse gas emissions. More important and related questions include, for example, by how much has it warmed, what else has been at work besides greenhouse gases, is the warming unprecedented or not, does it matter anyway (isn’t warming better than cooling?), and many others. Pedantically, there is no need for a consensus to be graced with the adjective pervasive. If it is a consensus then it is by definition pervasive, meaning ‘permeated’, ‘diffused through’, etc.

Then interested readers might wonder where to find the entrenched denial of the supposed fact that the Earth is warming from greenhouse gas emissions. The sceptical community for the most part, I think, accepts that greenhouse gas emissions have contributed to the warming that has occurred over the past century or so (which is not quite the same thing). There are a few dragon-slayers who don’t agree. But entrenched denial? I’m not aware of it. The links don’t help, since Dunlap 2013 is a study of 108 climate change denial books with most of the interest being in their supposed links to business groups. The Lewandowsky link is even less helpful, as well as being an intellectually dreadful paper. I don’t know quite what I would expect to find as an example of entrenched denial in opposition to pervasive consensus, but there’s no evidence for it here. To continue:

Media reports occasionally even proclaim that warming has stopped (Ridley, 2014) or that we are headed for global cooling (e.g., Rose, 2013). These propositions have no scientific support …

Well, Matt Ridley’s op. ed. in the Wall Street Journal may not be top-of-the-line science, though he refers to the science, but the UK Met Office did indeed agree that there was a hiatus in warming, and that it would continue until 2017. The scientists who propose the possibility of cooling are solar physicists, for the most part, and their views may be wrong. But the ‘cooling’  view does have some scientific support (see, for example, here).

These introductory remarks are a little jarring, in the context of the pure bromide that is to come. Public debate and scepticism are essential to a functioning democracy. Indeed scepticism has been shown to enable people to differentiate more accurately between truth and falsehood. How could we disagree? So how do we tell when what we are getting is scientific fact or denial? Ah, you see, there are three factors that are always present when denialists are involved. First, they make stuff up. Second, denial commonly invokes notions of conspiracies. (I think Dunlap 2013, mentioned above, is an excellent example of the way in which conspiracies can be invoked, but I don’t think the authors had him in mind.). Third, denialists engineer personal and professional attacks on scientists both in public and behind the scenes, and issue prolific complaints to scientists’ host institutions with allegations of research conduct. Two of the authors of this article claim to have experienced such behaviour.

The authors claim, on the basis of what they call recent evidence, is  that up to US$1billion flows into foundations and think tanks in the U.S. every year that are dedicated to political lobbying for various issues. One of the principal objectives of this network is to support a climate “counter movement” that seeks to reframe public discourse surrounding climate change from one of overwhelming scientific consensus to one of doubt, debate, and uncertainty (Brulle, 2014; Plehwe, 2014). To illustrate, more than 90% of recent books that dismiss environmental problems have been linked to conservative think tanks (Jacques, Dunlap, & Freeman, 2008), and such books typically never undergo peer review (Dunlap & Jacques, 2013). This does look like conspiracy stuff to me, on first reading, but again, I doubt the authors had this in mind either.

Now comes more bromide: In a democracy, calls for genuine debate are to be welcomed and must be taken seriously. Given that scientific issues can have far-reaching political, technological, or environmental consequences, greater involvement of the public can only be welcome and made led to better policy outcome. Who could disagree? We are given a small example of how this has worked in practice (it is not in climate change).  Notwithstanding the public’s entitlement to be involved in issues that are scientifically informed, scientific debates must still be conducted according to the rules of science. Arguments must be evidence-based and they are subject to peer review before they become provisionally accepted. Hang on there! If arguments have to be evidence-based, and the evidence doesn’t support them, what then? Do we really have to wait for good policy until the peer-review process (something that applies almost solely to academic work) has considered the matter? In the climate science arena even well-credentialled sceptical scientists have found it hard to get critical papers accepted for publication.

In the matter of disagreement, the two first-named authors acknowledge the uncertainty in climate projections, but note that contrary to popular intuition, any uncertainty provides even greater impetus for climate mitigation. I’ve come across this line of argument before, and have to go along with ‘popular intuition’ here. If there is uncertainty about whether something needs to be done, because the evidence is weak or equivocal, it would seem strange indeed to say ‘Hah! That’s even more reason to go down my chosen path!’ I am open to persuasion, but not to this kind of assertion.

What I think is happening in this strange, muddled and evidence-free paper is a kind of explicit argument that peer review is the only way to go, if only because the blogospherical world (which the authors denounce) has very little in the way of support for the supposed consensus. By now the title of the paper has been forgotten by the authors, and we get this: People who deny scientific facts that they find challenging or unacceptable, by contrast, are by and large not skeptics. On the contrary, they demonstrably shy away from scientific debate by avoiding the submission of their ideas to peer review. One has to say, again, that peer review is for academics and is not the gold standard for science. Bad data, bad argument and self-interest are usually quickly discovered, and any proposition that results from them is usually dismissed, or at least put aside. What distinguishes ‘climate change’ is that policies like the carbon tax came before the science was properly in (it still isn’t), and for political reasons the policies remained current, despite the lack of continually corroborative scientific evidence.

Oh well, another blinkered, dodgy, peer-reviewed paper. Who let this through? Oh, I forgot to mention the Guidelines. The first, ‘Proposed Guidelines for Critical Scientific Engagement by Members of the Public’ begins with this little preamble: If your goal is to contribute to a scientific conversation, then you need to follow certain rules. One of those rules is that scientific arguments are conducted in the scientific peer-reviewed literature. If you are unwilling to do so, these guidelines are of little value. Indeed so. Good luck, would-be contributor!

The second set is for scientists who might be approached by a member of the public seeking critical engagement. The Guidelines tell you to be careful — you might be approached by someone who is not in good faith, and wants to find errors in your work. Don’t help them!

And when you’ve finished both guidelines, you still don’t know what the authors think a ‘true sceptic’ is, or how he or she is to be distinguished from a ‘denialist’. Yet that is embodied in the title of the article.

Finally, the authors. The first two names will be familiar to readers of this website, and indeed to anyone interested in the ‘climate change’ issue: Stephan Lewandowsky, Michael E. Mann, Nicholas J. L. Brown and Harris Friedman. You will learn about the third and fourth by reading the article. They seem somewhat more sensible than the first two. Oh, there are 96 references, of which 22 are self-referenced articles, 16 of them by Lewandowsky alone. I may be wrong, but I could find just three references that were critical of the authors’ standpoint. Not exactly a review paper, for all its pretension.

And I find myself saying, yet again, this  awful, poorly argued, self-seeking paper has passed peer review? What have we come to in the journal world?

September 10, 2016 - Posted by | Deception, Science and Pseudo-Science, Timeless or most popular | ,

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