Sunday, 23 March 2014

Claim - climate scientists are running scared of debates

I use the word claim in the ironic way that Anthony Watts uses it over at WattsUpWithThat: I don't believe it.

There's a reason I don't believe it.  But first, Watts has posted this (archived) in which he notes that climate scientists are not willing to debate the skeptics and that the BBC is keeping deniers away from scientists.  My, my, what a touchy little group the deniers are.

Some of you might be aware that Bill Nye the Science Guy debated creationist Ken Ham recently and it was generally accepted that Ken Ham became the mop with which Nye swept the floor.  But many believed Nye was wrong to take the challenge, and maintain that science lost and that creationism had the most to gain.  The thing is, as in the now oft quoted maxim, a debate looks good on the denier's CV, not so good on the scientist's.

Why?  It's simply easier to keep chucking out questions in a debate than it is to answer them.  And the scientist has the harder job because the denier only has to sow doubt in the audience's mind, not establish any truth.  That's why we get the Gish Gallop, the stream of accusations, assertions and questions that the scientist neither has the time nor the knowledge to counter. 

It might seem strange that I said knowledge there but it is no accident - the deniers can drag their assertions for doubt from anywhere in science.  The scientist, on the other hand, is there because he is an expert in something, and has less knowledge about much of science than you might think.  Why should they?  Their job is not to know all science but to be masters in their chosen field.  The denier, on the other hand, doesn't need to know anything at all about science.  They need only be able to identify a tricky question, hide it in a pile of other, breathlessly spoken sentences and then return to it when the scientist has omitted to answer it.  It is a simple rhetorical device and one hollow of the intention to uncover the truth.

Debates are a game.  Some are very good at them, but scientists are not trained in them (I bet Lord Monckton was part of the debating society at school and then at Cambridge) and don't need to take part in them.  Science is not won or lost by a rhetorical flourish or two.  It is won or lost on hard earned evidence. 

So scientists don't often debate in the formal setting that the climate deniers would love to get them in. 

And news programmes are not the vehicle for debates either.  Science is not about opinion and there really aren't two opposing sides in spite of what climate deniers would have us believe.  Or creationists or antivaxxers or ....  You get the picture.

I've heard plenty of opposing views being expressed in close proximity on the news over the years.  It is entertaining but hardly enlightening.  The BBC recognised some time ago that there was a spurious desire for balance in scientific stories where none was justified.  I am glad to say they ignored anyone wanting to claim a religious reason behind the BICEPS2 results, that inflation did occur in the extremely early Universe.  That would have been stupid.  The story was about a scientific discovery.  Climate change stories are equally about the science in the main.  If they are about the policy then there is some room for balance.

There is another challenge in the balance problem the BBC has.  A climate scientist with expertise and understanding in climate science, could find themselves up against a chemistry graduate turned accountant, for instance.  It puts the climate scientist who has spent years studying and refining their ideas on a spurious level with someone who really does their climate science as a hobby.  A good many bloggers, and I include myself amongst this group, do what they do as a hobby.  If the mighty on the Internet want to know what I think, they can read it here.  If not, well, it's their right.

I don't expect the BBC to ring me up to ask me what I think on some topic.  In fact, I've decided to have fewer opinions.  It doesn't really matter what I think about One Direction or celebrity X's marital problems.  But I reserve the right to spout off when I feel there is something I can add.  Hence this post.

If I wanted someone to debate a climate denier, I wouldn't go for a climate scientist per se but someone like Sam Harris.  He is a scientist, a neuroscientist, and he is sharp as a pin.  In some areas he is controversial, but he is the sort of person who can carry a debate because he understands that debates are not about the truth but about scoring points.

And that video has some very good point scoring.

For a long time now the pseudodebate desired by deniers in all those scientific areas that denial touches has been about raising doubt.  The truth is that ugly juggernaut.  It won't be stopped, just delayed.  A debate, in a theatre or TV studio, won't change the reality.  Monckton or one of his mates can win all the debates on climate change that they care to stage.  Truth isn't established there.  Or on this or any other blog.  When the deniers understand this, perhaps they will shut up asking for debates.  I doubt it.

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