Religion and science, a second go

As I wrote in my last post, circumstances got in the way of small essay I had planned to write on the subject of climate science as a religion. I’m not at all suggesting that climate scientists generally have a religious view of what they do, though there are a few, like Professor Karoly, or Dr Michael Mann in the USA , about whom I sometimes wonder. There are certainly scientists who want to keep pressing what they see as the fundamental message of global warming, pushing to the side the obvious problems with that message, and describing those of us who ask questions as ‘deniers’. You can find them in the leadership roles in the academies, and they pop up whenever the IPCC presents a new report.

No, what I am about is neatly captured by a commenter to the last post: ‘What do you think drives those who still advocate the IPCC style alarmist agenda?’ My lengthy answer starts with the proposition that those who do that sincerely believe that they are right, and that they have an obligation to share their conviction with us. On the whole, they are not much interested in the science, the data, the observations or the arguments (about what causes Arctic warming, or which data to take seriously about sea levels, or whether or not a hot spot in the troposphere is a key question).

That isn’t their concern. Rather, they do sincerely believe that humanity is in crisis. They can see the looming crisis wherever they look — in what comes out of chimneys, in holes in the ground, in the parched land they see in television news broadcasts, in polar bears on ice floes, in the awful shots of fires, floods and tsunamis. What is more, they know that we, their fellow humans, are responsible for these blemishes on what ought to be a beautiful world. More still, we could do something about it! We can repent, and change our ways, and move to a decarbonised economy and society — if we do what they are asking us, instructing us, to do. I don’t think I’m overdoing it. People who tell us, for example, that humanity could become extinct if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions, must believe that what they are saying is true, especially if they are scientists of some kind. But to me, they sound like evangelicals, a kind of secular Jehovah’s Witness, knocking on my door and asking me to listen while they give me that superior-wisdom look that brushes aside any objection or serious question.

Why are they like it? My guess is that they are people who need to believe in something, because they can’t make sense of life and their own existence unless they can point to a purpose greater than themselves. Christianity and the other religions all do their best to provide that meaning, first about the point of it all, and second about what the afflicted human being must do to feel better about it all. The door-knockers are armoured against any criticism, because there is Holy Writ, in the form of the IPCC Reports, which are a form of superior religion. It doesn’t matter that they have not read the reports; the point is that what is said there is incontrovertible, because it comes from Science (as in ‘we accept the science’).

Science is not the new religion, exactly, but it is the new godhead. To counter it, the heretic or pagan has first to have written a paper and had it published in a peer-reviewed journal of the right kind. Having done that, he or she will find that it is promptly ‘debunked’ by the priests of Skeptical Science or other blogs of that kind. A repentant sinner, however, can buy indulgences in the form of carbon offsets, or donate to Greenpeace, or install solar power, or clamour for windmills.

It is almost pointless to argue with such people, because they are not interested in debate or argument. In a real and important sense, they do not understand that science, as it has been practised over the past several hundred years, thrives on disagreement (see the masthead to this blog), always tests hypotheses where it can, does not seek consensus, and accepts nothing on authority. The ‘religion’ of global warming or ‘climate change’ has nothing to do with science, and a great deal to do with the felt need that some people have to control what others do.

I am sure that there are hundreds, thousands of scientists out there who take a dim view of all this, and wish the AGW religionists would find something else to do. But our political system has the great virtue of allowing people to say what they like (though don’t forget 18[c] of the Racial Discrimination Act), and politicians will always take advantage of any avenue that could improve their chances of forming government.

What can be done about the evangelicals? Not much. They are not just in ‘climate change’, but in many other avenues of life — nutrition, alcohol, smoking, prostitution, pornography, you name it. They come to the fore where they see people doing something that they take objection to, but is not actually forbidden by law. There are just more of of them at the moment in ‘climate change’. I think their numbers are falling, but if we move to an el Nino condition later in the year, which looks possible, they’ll be back, crying ‘We  told you so!’

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    In general, I agree. The defenders of the AGW faith always claim there is no doubt, the world is warming disastrously and we are the cause. They are not interested in questioning their beliefs, because doubt is a poison to any believer. What proportion of the CAGW are true believers is difficult to say. I think many are charlatans and opportunists, the jackals that hover around any herd of believers (and any government funded gravy train). There also may be many who are doubtful, but are trapped into pretending to be believers: the CAGW faithful enforce orthodoxy through intimidation, bullying and ostracism. There aren’t many Judith Curry’s out there who are willing to stand up to the Inquisition.

    Over at Australian Climate Skeptics, Anthony Cox made a good point in his review of ‘Noah’: “Man-made global warming [AGW] was always a reworking of the Eden myth parable where the paradise of nature was despoiled by the use of fossil fuels.” I think this is a reasonable hypothesis.

  • Tim Florin says:

    Thank you, Don, for your lovely essay.

    Another characteristic of evangelical movements is the simplicity of their message. Superficial plausibility is all that may be required.
    It is of no consequence that a message like carbon or carbon dioxide is evil, does not withstand critical consideration. While a Martian would ridicule such a superstition, for the moment the dogma is as certain as the Holy Trinity was in the Dark Ages. I dont believe that you are ‘overdoing it’ when you talk of indulgences with carbon offsets etc.

    The AGW alarmists should also understand that many ‘non-believers’, are just as concerned as them to leave a gentler footprint on Earth. But alas, this truth may be unpalatable for many of them, in the same manner that many religious believers have been intolerant of humanists even though they may share the same values.

  • BoyfromTottenham says:

    Don says “What can be done about the evangelicals? Not much.” But these evangelicals are having a HUGE effect on our political and financial system – green this and that, the Carbon Tax, windmills, the RET, rising energy bills, coal fired power stations going broke, etc. etc. Surely someone reading this excellent article must have SOME idea what can be done to contain or defuse this collective madness? Or must we just wait for it to “blow itself out” like a southerly buster? I hope not!

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Lomborg says he agrees with the CAGW belief system but economically the only course is to adapt. Should we ignore the “scientific” argument and ask instead what can be done to reduce GHG. Nothing that has been done has reduced CO2 at all. It just keeps going up at about 20 ppm every 10 years. If all the effort is in vain where do we go? Ask how can we possibly stop using fossil if there is no replacement. Are they okay with mass deaths?

  • Gus says:

    “What do you think drives those who still advocate the IPCC style alarmist agenda?”

    For starters, very few of them are scientists. For example, Stephan Lewandowsky, currently of the University of Bristol, is a psychologist. Not a physicist, not a geologist, not an atmospheric physicist or oceanographer, not a biologist. He’s a psychologist. What has psychology to do with the earth climate? Nothing. It is hardly even a proper science. More like a study of brainwashing and propaganda techniques.

    Recently a group of US Senators organized a night-long session, a talkfest, dedicated to “climate change.” Some were more active than others–too much Red Bull and cocaine perhaps. I took the trouble to look up curricula of the most outspoken ones and here they are:

    Reid: majored in political science & history
    Schumer: majored in law, but never practiced
    Boxer: majored in economics
    Blumenthal: majored in law
    Schatz: majored in philosophy
    Feinstein: majored in history
    Whitehouse: majored in law
    Franken: majored in political science
    Kaine: majored in economics
    King: majored in law, has family business in energy conservation

    Not a single one is a scientist!

    Perhaps you could carry out a similar exercise regarding Australian politicians. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find.

  • DaveW says:

    If we agree that CAGW has the trappings of a religion, i.e. a belief system based on dogma and not on testable hypotheses, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily wrong. They could be right in their belief that mankind is destroying the earth by burning fossil fuels. They could even be right, but for the wrong reason (e.g. land use changes are certainly having major impacts on ecosystems and their species).

    All I can actually say is that as best I understand it: (1) CO2 by itself cannot have much of an effect on temperature (its effect decreases with concentration and is soon saturated); (2) that although atmospheric CO2 has been steadily increasing in recent decades, the estimates of global temperature show no strong correlation over that period, only correlate well during one short period with unusual weather conditions including a ‘super’ El Nino, and the temperature anomalies (deviations from a long term average) show no trend over the last 15 years or so; (3) similar apparent temperature rises have occurred in the past at apparently much lower and more stable CO2 concentrations; (4) as warm or warmer conditions as present are known and well documented during the Minoan, Roman and Medieval Periods and in general these periods were good for people and had no devastating effects on ecosystems; and (5) the very long-term estimates have always shown a significant lag between temperature rise and CO2, with temperature peaking 800-1000 years before CO2 (i.e. temperature appears to drive CO2 and not visa versa). I think these are all testable hypotheses and none appear to have been falsified in a scientific manner. In fact, the weight of evidence seems to be against CO2 being able to cause significant global warming. Apparently, this makes me a ‘denier’, although I think of myself as an agnostic.

    Three other factors tend to reinforce my agnosticism. First, The models on which the claims of CAGW are based appear to have been wildly off in their projections, apparently because the Earth’s climate is too complex for them and they are unable to handle dominant factors such as cloud cover and water vapour. Ad hoc adjustments to feedback estimates to match trends is not hypothesis testing and provides no reliable inference as to mechanism or future climate.

    Second, many, perhaps most, of the claims about what ‘could happen’ if global temperatures rise are pure bunkum. Wild claims in my areas of knowledge are what first caused me to go back and review the mechanics of AGW (which I had subscribed to passively – sounded good if you didn’t look at it critically). This eventually led me to understanding that there is a much worse problem in modern science than CAGW: big government bandwagon science is corrupting all scientific research including medicine.

    Third, the blatant hypocrisy of the primary proponents of CAGW argues either that they do not believe what they preach or they are deluded. How can rich, resource-guzzling globe-trotters be believed when they preach we all must repent before it is too late? Who in their right mind would pay attention to the Al Gores, Prince Charles, Attenboroughs, Archbishops of whatever, Lords of whatever when they leave their mansions to jet about the world doing what they wish while telling others to do without? One thing that struck me about the Climate Gate emails was how often the climate scientists were away at a convention in some exotic place. Why aren’t all climate science conventions conducted by Skype or the like? If things are as bad as they claim, why are they living lives of carbon excess?

    These last three points are a bit on the soft science side, but are still based on logic and evidence. I could make other points about the politics of CAGW and the endless arguments from authority, but I won’t. Just take it from me: I’m a scientist and I say CAGW is unproven and things may be better than they seem. (This is sarc – scientists don’t know the truth, at best they only know which hypotheses seem the strongest and that the real world is more complicated than even the best supported theories would have us believe.)

  • […] post is a sequel to my last, and seeks to answer the same question — what drives those who keep pushing the IPCC’s […]

  • […] written a couple of posts recently (here and here) about how the AGW scare has been picked up as a variant of religion, and defended by […]

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