It’s climate scientists, not concern trolls who champion the scientific method


It’s climate scientists, not concern trolls who champion the scientific method

Warren Pearce has mistaken concern trolling for caring about the scientific method

TROLLS - 1992

Concern trolls can be mistaken for climate skeptics. Photograph: Andrew Dunsmore/Rex Features

The Guardian Political Science section recently published an article written by social science researcher Warren Pearce from the University of Nottingham. In that piece, Pearce asked if climate “sceptics” (or “skeptics” in my preferred American English) are “the real champions of the scientific method.”

This reminded me of a recent guest post on Pearce’s blog that focused on the exchanges between Ed Davey, Andrew Neil, and myself (to which Pearce gave me the opportunity to respond). The author of that post completely ignored the many scientific errors made by Neil and his refusal to consider all available evidence, concluding,

“Andrew Neil, in just one show, has done more to promote an active understanding of climate science and its controversies than has been done by the Carbon Brief blog, academics at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and elsewhere, Bad Science warriors, and a legion of Tweeters who claim to speak for science have done in their entire existences. Along the way, it is possible that Neil made some inconsequential technical mistakes.”

To be clear, Neil’s comments were not “inconsequential technical mistakes.” They were glaring errors, including ignoring 98 percent of the relevant global warming data and repeating long-debunked climate myths. That is not how to “promote an active understanding of climate science”.

On this basis, it seems rather bizarre to ask whether these “sceptics” are “the real champions of the scientific method.” In any case, this is a misuse of the term “sceptic.” If one goes around repeating long-debunked myths as though they were reality, there are various adjectives that might apply, but “skeptic” is not one of them.

Climate scientists, by contrast, are by their nature and profession skeptics. They subject their work and ideas to the peer-reviewed process, which acts as a filter to ensure that research is conducted carefully and objectively, consistent with the scientific method. That is real scientific skepticism, as opposed to uncritically repeating a bunch of stuff posted somewhere on an internet blog.

Pearce’s primary example of a ‘sceptic champion of the scientific method’ is blogger Anthony Watts, and his reason is that Watts accepts that the greenhouse effect exists, and did an experiment to prove it. Personally I think that’s setting a rather low bar. Kudos to Anthony Watts for not denying basic physics that was established by Joseph Fourier in 1824, and for conducting a simple experiment to demonstrate it, as John Tyndall did in 1859.

However, aside from accepting the 150-year-old science behind the greenhouse effect, Watts with latch onto any argument so long as it suggests that the human role in global warming is minimal – an attitude also known as ABC (Anything But Carbon). Coincidentally, that includes publishing guest blog posts from people who deny that the greenhouse effect exists. So much for that intense concern about the scientific method.

For example, I once documented a 6-month period in which Watts argued on his blog that the current global warming could be blamed on the sun, ocean cycles, the sun again, chlorofluorocarbons, and then other ocean cycles. In fact, the only characteristic that arguments from Pearce’s “sceptics” share is that they contradict each other.

Hence I prefer the term “contrarian” for people who will latch on to any argument as long as it is contrary to the human-caused global warming theory. This includes engaging in smear campaigns against climate scientists like Michael Mann and James Hansen, and even climate bloggers like myself who dare suggest that human-caused climate change is a problem that we must solve.

Like Andrew Neil, Watts also consistently gets the science wrong. In fact, there are at least four separate climate blogs primarily devoted to correcting Watts’ constant scientific mistakes. After reading Pearce’s article, one of those bloggers wrote,

“The main motivation behind me starting this blog was because I was tired of reading things on Anthony’s blog that were clearly scientifically incorrect. I thought I may write a post every now and again that tried to address something said on Anthony’s blog. I started in April and am now on post 153.”

Constantly getting the science wrong, ignoring inconvenient evidence, smearing climate scientists and bloggers – that’s not skepticism. Pearce’s question is like asking whether moon landing conspiracy theorists are the real champions of the scientific method because they don’t believe the moon is made of cheese.

There seems to be a growing opinion amongst some social scientists that we must listen to these climate contrarians and be careful not to offend or further polarize them. I can’t say I understand the logic, perhaps because I’ve had extensive dealing with contrarians over the past seven years and have yet to see more than one or two display any sort of real skepticism. Anthony Watts’ behavior is typical of contrarians, constantly flip-flopping between contradictory ABC arguments.

Contrarians aren’t “champions of the scientific method,” as Pearce posits. They might more accurately be described as ‘concern trolls‘, feigning concern at every little climate uncertainty or issue they can use to manufacture doubt and delay the action necessary to solve the climate problem.

In another guest article in our Political Science section, Tamsin Edwards commented that “sceptics” have told her the public trust in climate scientists has eroded because scientists have supposedly engaged in too much advocacy. It sounds to me like she’s been concern trolled. Climate scientists rarely if ever engage in specific policy advocacy. They’re also the most trusted sources of global warming information. And we have decades of evidence that ABC contrarians aren’t going to suddenly start trusting the climate scientists who tell them exactly what they refuse to believe – that climate change is a threat we need to address.

There are certainly open climate questions that require further research. Will clouds accelerate or dampen global warming? How much global warming are aerosol pollutants offsetting by reflecting sunlight? Precisely how sensitive is the climate to the increased greenhouse effect? These are all questions being actively investigated by climate scientists, because they are open-minded, curious skeptics who want to know the answers and do care about and follow the scientific method. These questions are worthy of further investigation and discussion, but exploiting them to delay climate action is not skepticism, nor does concern trolling about them champion the scientific method.

Our top priority should be implementing climate policies that are sufficient to avoid the most damaging and potentially catastrophic climate change. That’s a tall order. Right now we’re on a path for dangerous climate change even in the best-case scenario, let alone the most likely and worst case scenarios. We need major policy changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if we want to avoid some nasty climate consequences.

Pandering to ABC climate contrarians is not going to help us solve the problem in the least. Using Yale’s ‘Six Americas’ categories, contrarians mainly fall into the category of ‘dismissive’ of global warming (8 percent of the population), with some overlap into ‘doubtful’ (13 percent). They are a small minority of the population.

Concern trolling, constantly getting the science wrong, and ignoring the inconvenient data all stem from the same root cause – ideological opposition to climate solutions. No matter how much effort you put into pleasing contrarians, they are not going to be part of the solution; certainly not soon enough to help us avoid high-risk climate change. But they’re also a small fringe minority. We don’t need everyone to be on board, just enough to create the necessary support behind climate solutions. Pandering to ABC concern troll contrarians is wasted time that would be better spent communicating climate change risks to truly open minded skeptical people. Elevating contrarians with false praise for accepting that the moon isn’t made of cheese certainly isn’t going to help solve the problem.

The above article has been corrected for a misspelling of Tamsin Edwards’ name, and to reflect that Warren Pearce is not a professor.

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