On being ‘agnostic’, about ‘climate change’ and other things

It was T. H. Huxley who coined the word ‘agnostic’ in 1870, and he meant it to refer things that simply couldn’t be part of knowledge, like the existence of God — since Huxley’s firm view was that we could only know about material things. Since then the word has moved to a more general meaning: agnostics are people for whom whatever is being asserted hasn’t yet passed into secure knowledge. Until September 7th I was agnostic about the outcome of the federal elections; I’m not agnostic any longer.

More generally still, an agnostic is prepared to accept that there might be a Divine Being, and would do so were he or she to encounter God in person. Until then, he or she says that judgment is suspended on that one. An atheist, on the other hand, says firmly that there is no God, and that must be a matter of belief, since there is no evidence one way or the other.

The posts I wrote this week in preparation for the IPCC’s Summary for Policy Makers were reproduced on On Line Opinion, and they attracted a lot of adverse comment from people I would call ‘believers’, though at least one of them would dislike such a term. He (she) thinks that he(she) is following the ‘science’. The trouble is that there is such a lot of ‘science’, and it doesn’t all point in the same direction. Not at all.

Another wrote: ‘I read recently that Don Aitkin claimed to be agnostic on these issues. Who is he trying to fool? Real agnostics would also disseminate counter arguments, he doesn’t.’

I still think I am agnostic, and being one doesn’t require me to do anything in particular. The argument sequence goes like this:

IPCC: We believe that humanity faces a real crisis, and here is the science to prove it.

Agnostic: What about this, and that and the other (different scientific papers)?

IPCC: We’ve taken all that into account.

Agnostic: How?

IPCC: Through our exhaustive process of peer review, using thousands of experts and rigorous consideration of everything.

Agnostic: Well, I’d like to (for example) discuss your statement that the recent warming (that is, before the pause) is ‘unprecedented’.

IPCC: No, it’s too late for that. We’ve been there, and decided that the warming is unprecedented. The science is settled.

Agnostic: Not for me. There is still far too much uncertainty.

This is a scientific version of Papal Infallibility, and it doesn’t work for agnostics, who see no evidence that popes or scientists are ever infallible. But it is that sort of statement that inclines agnostics to see the orthodox, or very many of them, as ‘believers’. They don’t know, and haven’t done the work, but they need to believe in something, and they believe in this. Good luck to them.

For me, it is pretty straightforward. I don’t have my own theory, and I’m not required to have one. I simply ask what seem to me to be pertinent questions. I started my own research into this issue six years ago, and produced a paper (which you can read here) that set out my agnostic perspective.  I offered a series of cautionary points which I can summarise like this:

* Are the temperature data that we all rely on accurate enough to support the claims about recent warming?

* Are they (and the proxies) good enough to support the claim that recent warming is unprecedented?

* How much of whatever warming has occurred is the result of human activity, broadly defined?

* How important is the melting of polar ice?

* How reliable are the computer models, on which so much of the claim about catastrophe rests?

* How certain/uncertain are we about any of this?

*And how close to catastrophe are we, really?

If I had good answers to all those questions, and they all pointed down the orthodox path, than I would lose a lot of my agnosticism.

But in fact the IPCC reports do not provide good answers (yes, I have read both the Third and the Fourth Assessment Reports of the IPCC, mostly the Science chapters of what is  called Working Group 1). There is a lot of expressed confidence there, but there are not a lot of good answers to my questions. And the confidence is strangely at odds with the amount of uncertainty that is also there.

It seems to me, and I have said this many times before, that climate science is still in its early stages, the temperature data are quite rubbery until we get to the last thirty years, the proxies have a lot of error built into them, we still cannot, after two decades of extensive research, clearly distinguish the human signal in temperature from natural variability, the melting of Arctic ice has not proceeded to an ice-free Arctic sea (and doesn’t affect sea levels anyway), while Antarctic ice (90 per cent of the world’s ice) seems to be growing, the models didn’t predict the long pause we are in, and may well have over-estimated the importance of carbon dioxide.

In short, there is still abundant uncertainty in all of this, and catastrophe seems a long way off (it might be the return of an Ice Age). The Fifth IPCC Assessment Report will be out within a day and, like thousands of others, I will drop everything to read what is in at least the SPM.

Maybe some at least of my questions wiill be answered. If I am to be told that humanity still faces a crisis unlike any other in human history, I want good, strong answers to my questions, not vague expressions of confidence.



Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • dlb says:

    Many of my friends claim they are open minded (agnostic) about AGW but then qualify this remark by saying: “Even if it is proved wrong, isn’t it better to move away from carbon based fuels which are dirty, of limited life and environmentally damaging to extract?”

    This is a bit like saying perhaps God doesn’t exist but I am still going to church as it offers meaning to my life, fellowship and does good community work.

    I have tried to counter this argument but to little avail, obviously to many thinking people the green dream is seductive. And what is my opinion worth against an international panel of experts?

    • Peter Kemmis says:

      Yes; a couple of years ago one of my friends trotted out the “precautionary principle” as grounds for action. Actuaries are dealing with precaution all the time, and assess on the degree of risk. Provided they applied unbiased intellectual rigour, they’d have a field day with the IPCC reports and models! I’m reminded by dlb’s comment of a neighbour years ago, when discussing his degree of uncertainty about an after-life, expressed that same precautionary principle – it was safer to stay in his church, than take the risk.

      Imagine if James Watt when eyeing off a steaming kettle and its bouncing lid, had the IPCC whispering over his shoulder – “you can’t take the risk!” Presumably most of us wouldn’t be here, but on the bright side, neither would the IPCC.

      And I just read this morning that the British Govt’s climate adviser (David Mackay), is recommending three techniques to save us all from perdition: developing artificial trees to absorb carbon dioxide, planting millions of trees and burning them using carbon capture and storage, and speeding up the weathering of rocks by carbon dioxide in rainwater. He went on to say:

      “We are literally talking about mountains that would have to be ground up and put in the sea. That might have environmental consequences so we need research to find out if that is a credible option. At the moment money is tight and we haven’t got [the program] in place but I am going to recommend that this is a public priority for the long term.” (The Australian 29 Sept 2013.)

      Wow, what scope for more research funding! ‘He said he had already urged ministers to support a large-scale program of research and development and would now redouble his efforts.’

      Disappointingly, the report continues:

      ‘However, he said that despite spending four years as chief scientific adviser at the British Department of Energy and Climate Change, he had never met Prime Minister David Cameron or Chancellor George Osborne. He said he had offered last year to give Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, a briefing on climate change but this had yet to be taken up.’

      Ah well, them’s the breaks.

  • David says:

    “If you believe in the AGW scare (I don’t),…”
    Hardly agnostic! Don your sceptic slip is showing. 🙂
    Regards David

  • Don Aitkin says:


    An agnostic is quite right not to believe in the AGW scare if the evidence for it is inadequate, which it is, as I have learned through studying the basis of the claim and the evidence both ways.

    • David says:

      I refer you to the OED definition of “agnositc” see non-religious context. When you read the definition focus on the words “a doubtful or non-committal attitude towards something” I’m afraid your phrase “I don’t” for example does not convey a
      “non-committal attitude”
      You have every right not to belive in AGW, you just cant then claim to be agnostic!
      Regards David

      a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

      relating to agnostics or agnosticism.
      (in a non-religious context) having a doubtful or non-committal attitude towards something:until now I’ve been fairly agnostic about electoral reform
      [usually in combination] Computing denoting or relating to hardware or software that is compatible with many types of platform or operating system:many common file formats (JPEG, MP3, etc.) are platform-agnostic

      • Don Aitkin says:

        David, I don’t think that your argument is a strong one. I said that I don’t believe ‘in the AGW scare’. I don’t believe in the man in the moon, either. In fact, I don’t ‘believe’ in much. Agnostics wait for evidence that is compelling, and until they do, they don’t accept assertions that have little foundation (as they see it). If the facts change, I’m likely to change my view about something. As it happens I do accept that the earth is warming, and probably has done for the past 150 years, in fits and start. But the AGW scare — no, the evidence seems solidly against it.

        I don’t think there is much substance in this disagreement. It seems to be about whether or not I used a word according to one dictionary’s definition. My Shorter Oxford wouldn’t allow my use at all, and neither would my copy of the Macquarie. Both are old editions. I think my use is consistent with your dictionary’s definition. You don’t. Let’s agree to disagree.

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