We don’t need no stinkin’ debate!

For those who need to be told, the line in the title comes mostly from ‘Blazing Saddles’, in my view the best spoof in film — though I probably say so because in my boyhood all I saw in the cinema for several years were Westerns, and Mel Brooks’s 1974 film has every cliche in the genre (‘stinkin badges’ is the line in the film).

I adapted it because of a series of events in the past week, once again what seem like orchestrated performances to get us all worked up about the Paris Conference that starts at the end of November and finishes in December. It is re-run, some hope, of the Copenhagen Conference in 2009, but with a triumphal finish instead of a fiasco. More about that in a moment.

The first event is an open letter written to the President of the USA by a group of climate scientists. After congratulating the President on his efforts they say: as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States.

No equivocation here — no suggestion that extreme weather events don’t seem to be increasing, that sea-level rise is much as it has been, and that ocean acidity is as yet really unmeasurable. No, these guys are sure. What is quite bizarre is that they then invite the President and his Attorney-General to use a piece of legislation intended to deal with racketeers, known as RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), to investigate corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.  The writers then go on to suggest that what is happening in ‘climate change’ is similar to what happened with respect to the tobacco industry.

I wrote in March this year about an attempt by an American politician, Raul Grijalva, to have several climate scientists ‘investigated’ for speaking out against the hysteria over global warming. Another, Senator Whitehouse, has joined him, and he seems to have been the first to mention the RICO Act. The scientists have apparently followed his lead.

To me this is an astonishing thing for a group of scientists to do, and indeed some sceptics have already returned serve, asking whether or not the scientists themselves would be prepared to be investigated in the same way. Judith Curry, perhaps the best known of the climate scientists who have argued that there is far too much uncertainty in the climate issue for governments to proceed as though they known what is to happen (especially as it isn’t happening), has been particularly severe. She wrote her own letter to the scientists, pointing out, in part, that

scientists disagree about the causes of climate change for the following reasons:Insufficient observational evidence
Disagreement about the value of different classes of evidence (e.g. models)
Disagreement about the appropriate logical framework for linking and assessing the evidence
Assessments of areas of ambiguity and ignorance
Belief polarization as a result of politicization of the science.
The biggest disagreement however is about whether warming is ‘dangerous’ (values) and whether we can/should do something about it (politics). Why do you think your opinion, as scientists, matters on values and politics?

And finished like this:
What you have done with your letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy, which is to attempt to silence scientists that disagree with you by invoking RICO. It is bad enough that politicians such as Whitehouse and Grijalva are playing this sort of political game with science and scientists, but I regard it as highly unethical for scientists to support defeating scientists with whom you disagree by such methods. Since I was one of the scientists called out in Grijalva’s witch hunts, I can only infer that I am one of the scientists you are seeking to silence.

I’ll leave that event and pass to the next, much more civilised, where David Attenborough and a group of likeminded people have invoked the Apollo program to seek a similar commitment, this time from the world’s governments, to make renewable energy affordable. They want this commitment to occur in time for the Paris meeting.

The plan requires leading governments to invest a total of $15 bn a year in research,development and demonstration of clean energy. That compares to the $100bn currently invested in defence research and development globally each year. Public investment now will save governments huge sums in the future. What is more, a coordinated R&D plan can help bring energy bills down for billions of consumers. Renewable energy gets less than 2% of publicly funded R&D. The private sector spends relatively small sums on clean energy research and development. Just as with the Apollos space mission sod the 1960s, great scientific minds must now be assembled to find a solution to one of the biggest challenges we face.

I wouldn’t call the need to make alternative energy affordable one of the biggest challenges we face. And I’m not sure about how consumers of electricity — all of us — will be better off finding $15 billion every year for his project. I would have thought that solar energy’s great problem is storage. As for wind, I can’t see how $15 billion a year can do much about its intermittency and need for constant back-up. But look, Attenborough’s idea is a good deal more useful that calling on the President to prosecute deniers.

Finally, I came across an interesting piece about the likely shape of the document about which the world’s nations are to be asked to agree at the Paris meeting. It’s from the BBC’s Science Editor, and therefore carries the BBC’s usual note of doom and gloom about ‘climate change’. He declares that no one involved in the planning for Paris wants to hear the word ‘Copenhagen’, and that there is excitement at the thought that China and the USA have somehow joined the party. But it seems that that there will be something much less regulatory in the Paris document.

Whereas in Copenhagen there was an effort to browbeat countries into accepting targets for reducing carbon emissions, Paris is about collecting voluntary plans for action drafted by individual countries.

If that is the case, then the real outcome of the Paris meeting, whatever the hoo-haa in the media, will be a fizzer. China has said, after all, that it expects its emissions to go on rising until 2030. Governments can put in what they think will be more or less acceptable, and get on with their real work. Is an agreement not to regulate better for the world than no agreement not to regulate?

You would think we might have a debate about whether or not this fuss is sensible. Debate? We don’t need no stinkin’ debate.


Join the discussion 24 Comments

  • Dai Davies says:

    A great title and I hope you are right about Paris.

    It’s not just climate science that needs debate but the whole enterprise of modern science is in need of transparent review. As far as I can see the ‘science is settled’ chant was given early institutional credence by Robert May as president of the Royal Society in clear defiance of the society’s rules against public advocacy. The rot has reached the top.

    The optimist in me hopes that the climate fiasco will eventually lead to such a review. Recycling paragraphs from an article I wrote earlier theis year:

    “The legal profession has managed to come to a deal with the press to stop sensational reporting undermining due process. Science should be able to do the same. We don’t have to gag the press, just insist that the status of a result is clearly acknowledged and when a previously reported result has been shown to be unreliable a prominent retraction is issued. The knowledge that such a process exists would would dampen sensationalism among both journalists and publicity seeking scientists.”

    Dai Davies

    “If we are to get serious about the use of science in public policy we need an open adversarial court system with specialist advocates putting all sides of the case. It would help if we encouraged the development of a branch of science that specialised in refutation. We need people who built their reputation on their ability to analyse the work of others and expose shoddy work – particularly in medicine where recent systematic attempts to replicate published work have shown that much of it can’t be reproduced. Above all, we need transparency in the review processes and an acceptance of the principle that any scientific results that are put forward as relevant to public policy-making should be publicly available and not hidden behind the pay-walls of journals.”

    “The ‘We are close to a Theory Of Everything’ message that permeates contemporary scientific hubris robs young scientists of the hope of dedicating their lives to coming up with major breakthroughs and fundamental principles and condemns them to the treadmill of incrementalism. It has also created a faith in the pronouncements of scientists that has fuelled the climate scare. We are still just scratching the surface in our understanding of the natural world and climate is no exception.”

    • dlb says:

      Amen, and particularly to your last paragraph. This hubris has also fuelled the secular religion of scientism, particularly evident in the sceptic societies, academia and progressive institutions.

  • Dasher says:

    This is not new..I have run across a few who have suggested we suspend the democratic process to allow action on climate change to proceed without the inconvenience of irritating alternative views. Just recently I heard Phillip Adams suggest this in an interview on his Late Night live Show (I listen occasionally in the replay in the afternoon, some of the opinions are priceless) On this occasion I was stunned that a prominent intellectual could seriously make this suggestion. These people must not succeed.

    • AlainCo says:

      This is typiocal of Groupthink, the apearance of mindguards, the illusion of morality, the violence against dissenters.

      Wikipedia is very clear:!

      Roland bénabou have made since few yeas a model of Mutual Assured Delusion that explain emergence of Groupthink in gropus where the fate of individual is linked to the belief of the others, negatively, without chance to escape.


      “I present key ideas and results from recent work incorporating “motivated” belief distortions into Economics, both at the individual level (overconfidence, wishful thinking, willful blindness) and at the social one (groupthink, team morale, market exuberance and crises). To do so I develop a flexible model that unifies much of this line of research, then relate its main assumptions and testable predictions to the relevant experimental and observational evidence….
      The model presented below will incorporate both motives for departures from objective cognition: affective (feeling better) and instrumental (performing better). Depending on the context and tasks at hand, either one may be most relevant, and certain beliefs can also serve both functions. An important example of the latter is religion, which (to some) simultaneously provides self-discipline and reassurance, or consolation. Turning now to the supply side, how are desired beliefs achieved and maintained, sometimes against strong evidence? The paths to self-deception are countless, but three main categories can be distinguished: willful blindness, reality denial, and self-signaling.

      The first one consists in avoiding information sources that may hold bad news. For Huntington’s disease or HIV, for instance, this means not getting the test even though it is cheap or free, accurate, and can be done anonymously. Critical decisions need to be made, yet the person’s words and deeds reveal a negative ex-ante value for information. In the second scenario the news are already accumulating, though not yet completely final: symptoms are worsening, the objective probability of disease is rising to 70%, 80%, etc., yet the patient finds ways of not internalizing the data, rationalizing it away and convincing himself that his risk is still only (say) 15%, and behaving accordingly in most respects.

      The third strategy is one where it is the agent himself who manufactures “diagnostic” signals of the desired type, which he then interprets as impartial (Quattrone and Tversky 1984, Bodner and Prelec 2003, Bénabou and Tirole 2004, 2011). Keeping with the health example, this correspond to a person who “pushes” himself to overcome their symptoms, carrying out difficult or even dangerous activities not only for their own sake but also as “proof” that things are fine.

      Motives vs. heuristics.
      It is worth pointing out three fundamental differences between such motivated beliefs or cognitive tendencies and the more purely mechanical mistakes in inference associated to the “heuristics and biases” view (e.g., Tversky and Kahneman (1974)) and typically found in most models of bounded-rationality:

      1- The latter types of “errors” are automatic and undirected (an “intuitive” System I is often invoked), the former valenced (pleasant or aversive) and goal-oriented, though in general not consciously so. A clear example of the difference is that of confirmation bias versus selfenhancement, for someone who is already not very confident in their skill, attractiveness, health or other key characteristic. In the first case the person tends to interpret any ambiguous signals received as confirming and hardening their negative self-view. In the second they see the same evidence positively, as showing that things are actually pretty good, or not so bad. In practice, the great majority of people show the latter type of response, and only depressive ones the former.

      2- A second major difference is that people who are more analytically sophisticated, educated or numerate can actually be more prone to making distorted inferences –rationalizing away evidence and compartmentalizing knowledge to protect valued beliefs – than those with lower cognitive abilities. Moreover, such reversals of the standard bounded-rationality logic occur only when the issue at hand is value-laden (e.g., gun control, climate change; see Kahan 2013 and Kahan et al. 2014), and not when it is neutral.

      3- Unlike computational and statistical mistakes, motivated cognition is emotionally charged. This feature is revealed almost instantly by a “fighting response” (agitation, anger, outrage, hostility) whenever a cherished belief pertaining to a person’s identity, morality, religion, politics, etc., is directly challenged by evidence. This view of belief formation is also consistent with the renewal of interest in emotions and their influence on decision-making currently under way in psychology and neuroscience (e.g. Sharot et al. (2012)).


      In firms and organizations, the standard moral-hazard explanation for misbehavior is also often insufficient. A large literature in organizational psychology emphasizes the key roles of moral self-deception and overoptimistic hubris in many cases of corporate misconduct and financial fraud. 28 Most individuals engaging in dishonest behavior find ways to convince themselves that they are not doing anything wrong, are still good persons. Transgressions most often start small and even unplanned, then gradually escalate through a series of selfserving rationalizations increasingly at odds with objective judgment and reality. Group dynamics, both of the “common fate” type analyzed in the groupthink model and linked to social norms (judging oneself relative to peers, excluding dissenters) also powerfully amplify these tendencies.

      The above distinction is important and deserves more attention than it has so far received. In practice, of course, my take is that most cases involve bad incentives and bad beliefs, acting together as complements. This is still a topic for ongoing and future work –a coming together of agency theory and behavioral economics which, I like to think, Jean-Jacques Laffont would have looked upon favorably”

      • Dai Davies says:

        Reminds me of what Leonard Schapiro said: “The true object of propaganda is neither to convince nor even to persuade, but to produce a uniform pattern of public utterance in which the first trace of unorthodox thought reveals itself as a jarring dissonance.”

        • Don Aitkin says:

          I used this quote myself a little while ago (http://donaitkin.com/tilting-at-windmills/). He was once a visitor in my department, and a great man for good conversation.

          • AlainCo says:

            it seems sourced Allan Bullock


            I have observed that phenomenon, and today I observe it on climate (I no more defend my opinion, and don’t correct my daughter… I’m already convinced another groupthink have hidden the solution to climate hoax… cheap nuke energy… If you find what I talk about, you are a real tech watcher).

            Today, in france and globally in the West there is a pile of sacred cows and taboo, that are clear groupthink, and that even when they are show to the public as fraud and delusion, are never challenged, except by heretic like me, and even.

          • Dai Davies says:

            Yes, there is disagreement on the source. Bullock had a particular interest in language with A Language for Life. I first saw it referenced as Schapiro and that’s stuck. Either way it’s a great quote.

            I think we should get children to repeat it every day before school starts 🙂

          • AlainCo says:

            good quotes are reused by good speakers.

        • Dasher says:

          David I would back the diversity in the Australian against what I read in the SMH, and the Canberra Times and what I hear and see on the ABC anyday. Oh and if one relies on these sources they will rarely find anything but extreme warmest views(group think). The Australian is not perfect by any means but would it not be wonderful to hear a sensible (read informed ) discussion on this subject in our mainstream media.

          • David says:

            On some days every columnist in the OZ will be writing about the same subject. It comes across as very orchestrated.

          • Dasher says:

            And are you saying Fairfax and the ABC don’t do this almost without exception day in day out?

          • David says:

            Yes I do. Leaving aside any discussions about quality or bias of the different papers. I do think the Oz does like to do a blitz on certain topics. Its all hands on deck and every columnist will be on message.

          • dlb says:

            I lost count of the number of times I heard on the ABC today about medical over servicing. All as a lead in to the main event on “Four Corners” and then there will be more tomorrow. I think the ABC are quite expert at pushing agendas for better or for worse.

          • David says:

            Sure you have a point. But it wont see be 4 Corners, Q@A, Lateline @ 7.30 run the same story.

            And a lot of the follow-up talk will be in commercial media, anyway.

  • Walter Starck says:

    Ironically the RICO legislation would be far more applicable to the
    climate alarmist mob than it would be to any of the climate skeptics.
    The former are much more numerous and coordinated plus they have
    personally obtained orders of magnitude greater financial and social
    gain from their activity. It is also verifiable fact that they have
    repeatedly employed lies, misrepresentations, exaggeration, concealment,
    conspiracy, defamation and threats of violence in pursuit of their

  • PeterE says:

    This is of very serious concern. The people behind the alarmist movement are very determined and very sinister. They are not interested in discussion; they just intend to get their own way. Unless we can stop them, we are in for a new dark age.

  • MikeS says:

    Mel Brooks was paying homage to “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948) and a very plain speaking Mexican bandit instructing Humphrey Bogart about credentials and properly constituted authority!

  • Margaret says:

    ?… The title really did need explanation, which was supplied. Sort of. It did bring a lot of like minded commenters out of the woodwork but I’m not interested in hearing rants and mansplanations so I’m leaving on the noon train.

  • Dai Davies says:

    As you may guess, this post touches a topic close to my heart. To quote from my fictional writing of recent weeks – a conversation set in the year 2201 between the main character and her grandmother that contains a rare reference to our times:

    ‘It has its origins in the dismantling of the United Nations which was formed to reduce conflict between nations. … Over the century of its existence it was subverted by those who saw the solution as the elimination of the nation state and the replacement of traditional cultures with a simple global pidgin culture manufactured by a global elite. … It is a culture that doesn’t need to actively suppress dissent – a culture too simple for any thoughts of diversity of opinion to flourish. It is a thin gruel that starves creativity of any kind.’

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    The Pacific island nations are making fools of everybody over this issue. If you look at the (much maligned) Australian Bureau of Meteorology records for seal level at Kiribati, for example, minimum levels have not changed significantly since 1994, and although there have been a couple of spikes in maximum levels in 2014/15, there were also dramatic falls (corresponding to an impending ice age?) from 1997-99. No-one has the slightest idea what will happen, and the notion that humans can control it is completely ludicrous.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    The alarmists might also like to look at the official BOM sea level figures for the famously desperate Tuvalu, that sought to reap millions in ‘compensation’ for climate change, and should by now be metres under water. The graph for mean sea level from 1994 to the present is as flat as the desert in Central Asia.

  • […] with the scientists wanting others who disagree with them to be investigated as though they were racketeers, and David Attenborough’s suggestion that we spend even more money making renewable energy […]

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