A few days ago, on his ABC Science Show, Robyn Williams interviewed Stephan Lewandowsky, professor of psychology at the University of Western Australia, about Lewandowsky’s claim that ‘climate sceptics’ are simply ideologues in disguise. I’ve written about Lewandowsky’s ‘discoveries’ before, and since our radio is usually on Classic FM I didn’t hear the Science Show. But that program has caused some real anger within the sceptical blogosphere, so I decided that I’d better listen to it.
I have known Robyn Williams for thirty years or so, and four years ago he gave me not one but two successive programs to let me say what I thought about global warming, so I am predisposed in his favour. But I would have to say that this was not one of the better science shows.
What caused the sceptics’ ire were the presenter’s opening remarks: ‘What if I told you paedophilia is good for children, or that asbestos is an excellent inhalant for those with asthmatics, or that smoking crack is a normal part and a healthy one of teenage life, to be encouraged? You’d rightly find it outrageous, but there have been similar statements coming out of inexpert mouths, distorting the science.’
He went on: ‘These distortions of science are far from trivial, our neglect of what may be clear and urgent problems could be catastrophic, and now a professor of psychology at UWA has shown what he says is the basis of this unrelenting debauchery of the facts…’
This is tough though vague stuff, with an odd uncertainty in the middle: ‘may be clear and urgent problems’. If the problems only ‘may’ be ‘clear’, then surely they aren’t clear. Its not clear who is responsible for a supposed ‘unrelenting debauchery of the facts’, but that is likely to get people’s backs up, too. Anyway, protestors grew in number. They thought they were being made comparable to paedophiles.
They weren’t any happier with Lewandowsky, who said they ‘were rejecting the science not based on the science… but on other factors… what we basically found was the driving motivating factor behind their attitudes was their ideology. People who endorse an extreme version of free market fundamentalism …’
Now Lewandowsky’s surveys didn’t impress me with their methodology, and the notion that people who are sceptical about anything must somehow be ‘in denial’ of the truth is usually, to say the least, rather one-eyed. But both Robyn Williams and Lewandowsky used the figure of ’97 per cent’ of climate scientists as the weapon to show that those who don’t agree with the orthodoxy are somehow wrongheaded. That 97 per cent figure is also a dreadful statistic, and represents 75 of 77 people in a survey of more than a thousand, who satisfied a number of conditions. As someone who made well-designed sample surveys part of his life for a long time, what passes for ‘surveys’ today often makes me shudder, especially because bad surveys reduce the standing of the social sciences.
I am inherently sceptical about most claims, always looking for the evidence, and the extent to which it supports the argument. Our mainstream media are full of claims, about all sorts of things. With respect to ‘human-induced climate change’ I am agnostic about the catastrophic (‘urgent problem’) claims, and completely sceptical that the Australian carbon tax will have any discernible effect upon the environment for thousands of years, if ever. All it does is to churn money around, yours and mine.
And the sceptics I know have much the same outlook. All of them are well versed in the science. They don’t deny it at all. They would point out that the science is conjectural, comes with uncertainty and error, and is in process of constant change. If I can speak for them, their view is that we do not yet know enough about our climate, and what drives it — what caused the ‘mediaeval warm period’ and the ‘little ice age’, what has caused the flattening of global temperature in the last 16 years while CO2 continues to rise — to be embracing global schemes to ‘combat climate change’ now.
They would say that since the first IPCC report came out in 1990 we have learned a great deal, and that we will know a great deal more in another twenty years. In the meantime, we should be preparing our societies to adapt more successfully to the real climatic threats that we have experienced in the past and will experience in the future: floods, droughts and fires. We are getting better at that, too.
I don’t feel that the reference to paedophilia was anything more than a dramatic flourish, better for Robyn Williams’s purpose than the usual charge that sceptics deny the link between smoking and lung cancer, or are creationists. It was, nonetheless, unlikely to convince listeners that those sceptical of the projections of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming ought to be listened to in any way. Perhaps he knows about the quality of the Lewandowsky survey, and let it pass. Lewandowsky was there to put his point of view, just as I had been. But Robyn Williams should know how dodgy that ’97 per cent’ figure is.
I guess that it was the cosiness of the interview, the feeling that Williams and Lewandowsky were buddies, fighting for the same cause, and with truth and justice on their side, that got my goat.