Two recent papers that I have read provide an appropriate introduction to this piece. Judith Curry’s ‘Climate etc’ recently ran an essay, ‘Contradiction on emotional bias in the climate domain’, by Andy West, a British science fiction writer with an interest in ‘climate change’. It’s a good essay, and well worth one’s dipping into. West has done a lot of reading in the literature about emotional bias, and he argues that the strong push in so much AGW advocacy to worry ordinary people about the hot, dry, wet, cold future ahead of us, should we not ‘combat climate change’ through curbing greenhouse gas emissions, is now affecting climate scientists themselves. Some of them are reporting being depressed because we aren’t taking much notice of them. Some of them are Australians, too.
He maintains that all the literature he is citing comes from researchers who plainly believe in the ‘Consensus’, and makes the following point, which stuck in my mind: such intense emotive targeting and psychological shepherding may not so much be communicating the case for certainty, as manufacturing it.
The second essay, ‘Social Justice Bullies: The Authoritarianism of Millennial Social Justice’, by Aristotelis Orginos of New York University, took me into a world that is increasingly familiar, that of young people who want social justice NOW, and who regard as racist, sexist or otherwise deluded and reprehensible anyone who disagrees with them. His take-home message runs like this: in attempting to solve pressing and important social issues, millennial social justice advocates are violently sabotaging genuine opportunities for progress by infecting a liberal political narrative with, ironically, hate.
It all sounds rather like the war over ‘climate change’, doesn’t it, with the orthodox attacking ‘deniers’, a term which always carried with it a religious flavour. And that takes me to an online university course under the aegis of the University of Queensland. Its title is ‘Making Sense of Climate Denial’, and you can read about it, and even enrol, here. You can read more about it in a summary by its originator, John Cook, here. He has a cast of about a dozen to help him deliver the course, and I know of most of the names there. They are fervent supporters of the AGW orthodoxy.
Cook makes clear that the course is a collaboration between the people who run the Skeptical Science website (who include Cook himself) and UQ. He goes on: The course examines the science of climate science denial. Why do a small but vocal minority reject the scientific evidence for climate change? What techniques do they use to cast doubt on the science? And we examine the all-important question – based on scientific research, how should we respond to science denial?
Someone old-fashioned like me would wonder about all of this. For me the all-important question, accepting that an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is likely, all other things being equal, to lead to a small increase in temperature, is whether or not that is a problem. If it is, how much of a problem is it? At the moment, what I have read of the science suggests that it may not be a problem at all.
If you go to the course website you will learn that In public discussions, climate change is a highly controversial topic. However, in the scientific community, there is little controversy with 97% of climate scientists concluding humans are causing global warming. The old-fashioned person would be alert to such a claim, if only because it is so extreme. I mean, you hardly ever get 97% agreeing on anything, let alone on something thought to be controversial. And it was of course Cook himself who helped to develop this claim.
As it happens, there has been quite a lot of criticism of the claim, the most recent and most thorough being by David Legates and others, an abstract of which you can read here. I’ve written about the claim of a 97% consensus before. Three different ‘studies’ of published papers produced almost identical figures at that level. The last, that of Cook, was based on an inspection of 11,944 published papers. Lots of people, myself included, criticised the Cook paper for its methodological weaknesses. David Legates and a team looked at every paper he listed, and came up with a very different summary: of the 11,944 papers only 4,014 expressed any sort of opinion about the causes of global warming. Of those, only 41 of them, or 0.3%, attributed the warming directly to human activity. For those interested, you can work backwards from the last Legates paper to read three others, in which Cook defends what seems to me the indefensible. Perhaps I am biased, as an old-fashioned data person, but the methodology of the Cook paper was really dreadful.
So here we are back at the new course. Why would anyone want to enrol in it? Cook says he has developed it To further the work of educating the public, and empowering people to communicate the realities of climate change. I can think of many different and better ways of achieving such aims. It is hard to escape the feeling that by communicate the realities of climate change Cook means ‘tell the orthodox AGW story as Al Gore presented it in his film’. Gore himself sought to train presenters to do what he had done, and occasionally you come across references to one of them spreading the message in Australia. This effort by Cook seems to be an imitation.
It saddens me that the University of Queensland, perhaps without knowing it, has become associated with what can only be described as an offence to good education. Science it is not. I put a mild comment on the course at ‘RealClimate’, on the assumption that a serious criticism would simply be put in the Trash bin. Mine was published, but so was that of an American statistician whose comments I have valued on other websites. His take on the course was short and pithy: Right. More about “How people who disagree with me have cognitive defects; people who agree with me do not.”
And it is hard not to agree. One common defence of any position, by anyone, including me if I don’t think first, is to argue that the opponent hasn’t got it right, misunderstands, has trouble of some kind. The assumption that Cook and his fellow teachers know it all is bizarre in any university setting. And a distinguished graduate of UQ has written to the present Vice-Chancellor deploring the University’s association with John Cook, and asking for a meeting to discuss the issue. I wish him every success.
Back to the West essay with which I began my own. It seems to me that Cook is about manufacturing a consensus, not showing its reality. The supposed consensus is not something that we should take for granted, and fails on inspection. By continuing to use the terms ‘denial’ and ‘denier’ he is displaying what Orginos was complaining about — bullying behaviour that brushes debate and discussion aside as unimportant — indeed impertinent, for Cook has the TRUTH. Why does he do it? What has happened to UQ?