06 February 2010

Views changing?

Via JoNova, there has been a large shift in opinion against global warming in the UK.

There has been a lot of triumphalism on the sceptic side - James Delingpole talking about the "imminent death of the AGW scam", and so on - but I think it is misplaced.

I would guess that the surge in scepticism in Britain owes a lot more to the exceptionally hard winter than to the revelations from East Anglia or the antics of Pachauri, none of which have made very much impact on the public.

The cold winter is not insignificant, of course. It may be just normal variation, but the popular presentation of AGW has mysteriously ignored the fact that the temperature changes they are talking about are barely even measurable, and nowhere near enough to actually notice compared to ordinary year-to-year variation. Therefore, while a cold winter in Britain tells us nothing about climate change as described in the journals, it is a clear falsification of global warming as it has been presented by the media since the 1990s

That is why the media has been uncharacteristically open to both sides during the present kerfuffle. Various scientists are scrambling, not for sake of the movement, but for their own jobs. The movement itself can just sit this out and wait. The IPCC isn't going away (even if Pachauri does), nor are the politicians who have made climate concern a key part of their image. They'll wait until summer, and if they get a warm one in the USA and Britain, they'll crank up the machine again. They won't bother arguing the toss about tree-rings, Indian glaciers or Chinese weather stations, they'll just brush it all off as petty troublemaking in the face of the overwhelming threat. And the media will take sides, as they always do, on the basis of which politicians they want to gain and which they want to lose from the whole process.

The exposure of climate science's guilty secrets, then, will not stop the process in the short term. In the long run, it may have an effect. As I discussed before, it has allowed some people who never believed the exaggerations to say so in public. This in turn may persuade a future generation of politicians that global warming is not what they want to attach their reputations to. For the Obama/Cameron/Milliband generation, it is too late. In a democracy, being indecisive is worse than being wrong, and they cannot afford to change their positions now. But the next decade's politicians are constructing their positions now, and the choices they make will drive the media landscape of the 2020s.

Ironically, one of the biggest causes of the original AGW error cascade, as Eric Raymond calls it, was George W Bush. For the rank and file in the world's science departments, Bush was pretty much the most despised figure in history, because of his association with fundamentalist Christianity and the resulting policies, above all against Stem Cell research. To the typical scientist, the theory that the president was attacking climate science because he was in league with oil interests was so intrinsically likely that it wouldn't make sense to even question it. This was the man who prohibited park rangers from denying young-earth creationism at the Grand Canyon. From that point on, any criticism at all of global warming was presumptively an attack on science itself on behalf of religion and commerce and was to be dealt with on that basis, not studied and reasoned with as if it was part of a real scientific debate. The controversy fell into the pattern of the evolution/creation controversy, rather than the pattern of arguments over Dark Matter or Psychoanalysis. That attitude still persists, and will be very hard to shift, because once it is established, then evidence which strengthens the deniers, while it might start to persuade some of the faithful, will produce in most of the faithful a renewed determination to defeat the anti-science enemy which has become more dangerous through the unfortunate developments which have increased its appeal. Thus the error cascade is perpetuated.

The difficult thing is that I sympathise with these people. I can understand why they are doing what they are doing, and I can't see a way to shake them out of it. They have learned over the decades that if they treat creationists and the like with respect, and argue honestly and fairly, they will be screwed by elected politicians. And they are applying that lesson. If they didn't just happen to be wrong, they would be doing the right thing.

1 comment:

Erich Kofmel said...

In case you haven't come across them yet, check out my blog, the "Anti-Democracy Agenda":

www.anti-democracy.com

and my book, "Anti-Democratic Thought" (Imprint Academic, 2008):

http://books.google.com/books?printsec=frontcover&id=KkMdJtaaeOYC

Cheers