Friday, December 20, 2013

Reddit's science forum bans climate change deniers

But what's really schadenfreudelious is the editor's explanation (h/t Grist):
After some time interacting with the regular denier posters, it became clear that they could not or would not improve their demeanor. These problematic users were not the common “internet trolls” looking to have a little fun upsetting people. Such users are practically the norm on reddit. These people were true believers, blind to the fact that their arguments were hopelessly flawed, the result of cherry-picked data and conspiratorial thinking. They had no idea that the smart-sounding talking points from their preferred climate blog were, even to a casual climate science observer, plainly wrong. They were completely enamored by the emotionally charged and rhetoric-based arguments of pundits on talk radio and Fox News.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Yes, Virgina, there are simple villains in climate change

Andrew Revkin, in his continuing efforts to be the bard of inactivism, wants us to know the climate change is everyone's (and thereby no one's) fault:
We grew up in the twentieth century when everything about the environment was either “woe is me” or “shame on you.” It’s all coming undone, and it’s your fault. That is so antiquated when you look at a problem like climate change, where there’s no whodunit. It’s, ‘We all dunit.’ We’re all using energy. You can punish Exxon, but I still have to fill up my Prius once in awhile and my mini van, which I need because we have two dogs, is not the most efficient vehicle in the world. So whodunit? Me. But the old model was that it had to be someone else’s fault and the other part of the old model was we had to pass a law, which basically means the solution is someone else’s solution. It’s government, a treaty, a law that’ll solve it. Things like climate change are just so much more wicked than the kind of problem you would solve that way. We have to get comfortable with the story when there is no simple villain….
This reminds me of nothing so much as Megyn Kelly's recent rant against evil historical revisionists who question the unquestionable reality that "Santa Claus is just white": 

Prompting Jon Stewart and friends to respond along the lines of "Uh, Megyn? Santa Claus isn't real."

Similarly, it's time the internet had a talk with Mr Revkin and explained to him another of the hard truths of adulthood: simple villains aren't real. Truly, they aren't any more real than Santa Claus. Climate change is no exception to the general rule of life that most big problems implicate a large number of people to a lesser or greater degree.

Whilst the civil rights movement was making simple villains out of Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond, there was endemic racism throughout both South and North. Whites everywhere benefited from employment and housing opportunities denied to blacks and other minorities. To this day Americans continue to benefit from centuries of unpaid labor by black slaves which contributed to our economy, for which reparations have never been made, or even attempted.
You are all me!

Stories of simple villainy exist for the same reason stories about Santa Claus exist: they make people happy. Specifically, they make people happier in undertaking just what Revkin wants them to undertake; reform of a social ill to which many people are a party, which will require short-term sacrifices from a lot of people.

The campaign against Jim Crow is one example of how this can be successful. The campaign against smoking is a still more recent example. Smoking has been steadily losing its grip on the American people over the past fifty years:

Smoking rates in the US over time
The simple villains of the tobacco wars were not the individual smokers (of course) but the tobacco companies who concealed evidence of the health risks of smoking, and waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation to cast doubt on the strong scientific evidence of harm (sound familiar?)

The tobacco companies ended up paying out hundreds of billions of dollars in settlements. But were they the only, or even the primary source of the harm caused by smoking? Certainly not. Farmers had to grow the foul stuff. The government subsidized that growth with taxpayer dollars, which makes it pretty rich, one might argue, for the government to go after the tobacco companies.

Hundreds of thousands of supermarkets, corner stores, bars, smoking shops and other businesses sold (and continue to sell) these death-dealing products, to make money.

Tens of millions of Americans chose to smoke this unhealthy product, to expose other people (most damagingly, their own children) to the smoke, and continued to do so, in many cases, long after their own health had been destroyed.

Did the campaign against tobacco target these people? No it did not. Should it have? Obviously not. As targets they are too numerous, too diffuse, too varied in their level of responsibility, too weak individually to alter the course of the epidemic.

Were the tobacco companies unfairly targeted? No! They lied to the public, lied about the science, and did tremendous damage to the public health in the service of their own bottom lines. Nevertheless, making them the simple villains of the tobacco wars was a political decision by those activists working on the problem -- a very successful one. While waging a rhetorical and later legal war on the tobacco companies, they very successfully encouraged a large portion of Big Tobacco's customers to divest themselves from its product. They convinced legislators to heavily tax cigarettes and heavily restrict where you could smoke them. They did this without making the individual smokers targets. They used their simple villains, the tobacco companies, to cast them as victims.

Revkin speaks dismissively of targeting Exxon as a villain of climate change, or using the kind of legislation used against tobacco companies to restrict the activities of big polluters. But he doesn't actually give any real reason why this won't work. Yes, everyone is implicated in the release of GHGs to some extent. Just as everyone is implicated in structural racism to some extent, or in the labor conditions that produce the cheap plastic products Americans so love, or as tens millions of Americans willing participated (many still do) in the tobacco epidemic. But that is no reason why we cannot identify big, destructive actors profiting hugely and deceiving the public and go after them.

Simple villains are a story, a rhetorical choice. In real life nothing is perfectly simple. But identifying bad guys and going after them can be a spoonful of sugar to help social change go down. Action is easier when there is a villain to target; that is why the government has taken vast amounts of action (much of it ill-considered) against the threat of terrorism, and virtually none against the far more dire threat of climate change. And in the complex tale of our fossil fuel addiction, there's no shortage of serious bad guys begging to be highlighted.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Trouble with Tamsin

Do you trust that face?

During my long and unexplained hiatus -- during which I may or may not have been reforging the sword of my fathers in anticipation of the final confrontation with Steven Goddard -- there was a large amount of buzz about Tamsin Edwards' throwing down the gauntlet and proclaiming that no one in climate science ought to offer any opinion about climate policy.

In the descriptively but unimaginatively titled, "Climate scientists must not advocate particular policies" Edwards lays out her case for abstinence-only public science eduction:
I believe advocacy by climate scientists has damaged trust in the science. We risk our credibility, our reputation for objectivity, if we are not absolutely neutral. At the very least, it leaves us open to criticism. I find much climate scepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence. So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.
Pace Edwards, scientists who indulge in advocacy can expect to see their reputations trampled in the mud, their credibility shredded, and their careers imploded. Examples are not far to seek. In 1947, for instance, a middle-aged physicist published "Why Socialism?":
[M]ost of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks. The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.
There goes his credibility. By the Law of Edwards, he's finto. It's a shame. But for this, I really think that Albert Einstein guy could have made something of himself.

If anyone would like a long list of immortal scientists who argued for particular public policies, I'm happy to provide one, but for the moment let's take that as read and ask why Dr. Edwards has put forward so aggressively an argument that falls apart like tissue paper when applied to real scientists?

Edwards lays out her initial motivation in her first sentence: "As a climate scientist, I’m under pressure to be a political advocate." She doesn't want to be a political advocate. But she obviously feels some defensiveness about this reluctance, or she would simply have said "Fuck off; I'm busy" rather than develop a general theory about why not only should people stop pestering her to take a stand, but that all scientists everywhere should never do so.

Now, if Dr. Edwards had stuck to her own case, and refused to engage in policy debates, her position would be, in my opinion, unassailable. Scientists have an obligation to do good science. They have no obligation to address any question of public policy. If they are reluctant to do so, they had best not do it. No one should bully them into it with expansive doctrines of the scientist's duty to educate. That "duty" has no basis in the traditions of science (1).

But it extrapolating from the personal to the general, Edwards misses the mark. Her argument is threefold:

1) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will lose the public's respect.
2) Scientists who advocate for particular policies will inflame climate deniers (whereas they love and respect Edwards.)
3) Scientists don't know what they are talking about (and anyway, it's all about values and stuff).

The third point I have addressed before. I have little to add, except that I like that post better than when I wrote it, and I think in a small way it contributes to the discourse, in that the nonsense claim that climate change is all about values has a lot of currency on both sides.

The second point is not only thin but somewhat sad:
So I’ve found my hardline approach successful in taking the politics and therefore – pun intended – the heat out of climate science discussions. They call me an “honest broker”, asking for “more Dr. Edwards and fewer zealous advocates”. Crucially, they say this even though my scientific views are absolutely mainstream.
I have no doubt that Edwards is accurately describing how some climate deniers react to her  They are pleased with her, as indeed they should be, because she is not challenging their inactivism in any way. Anyone who knows anything about climate "skeptics" knows that they do not care passionately about the scientific reality, but about the implications of that reality for public policy, so the fact that they like Edwards' stance is utterly predictable. Silent, neutered climate scientists are to deniers almost as good as no climate scientists at all.

Note what Edwards does not say: She does not say any "climate sceptics" have changed their minds about the science. She does not say they have changed their minds about any question of policy. She does not even claim that they accept her "absolutely mainstream" scientific views.

So what is she claiming? Really, only that climate skeptics tolerate her. They don't verbally abuse her. They don't threaten violence against her or her family. They don't sue her, or spam her with FOI requests, or file complaints with her university.

Shorn of sentimentality, this is what Edwards is actually saying: If you refuse to make any connection between your science and public policy, and denounce others who do, climate deniers will spare you the campaign of abuse they inflict upon more dangerous scientists. They may even call you an "honest broker." (No word on whether they call her the Gangster of Love.)

Of course the irony of claiming that title is that Edwards is not an "honest broker." She may be honest, but she can't be a broker, one who "arranges or negotiates (a settlement, deal, or plan)." That is what she has said she will not do, and what climate deniers do not want to do. The irony is thick. Just as many on the right want a government which does not govern, so the climate deniers' ideal "broker" is one who refuses to negotiate a settlement.

Finally we are left with Edwards' claim that scientists who weigh in on matters of policy will lose the public's respect.

This is another place in what Edwards doesn't say is as interesting as what she does. She doesn't say that scientists who advocate policy solutions will lose their objectivity and their science will suffer for it. She is not such a fool. As a working scientist, Edwards knows that scientists working a hypothesis are far from objective. She, like any publishing scientist, could probably list the top ten biases any scientist is fighting to keep at bay upon sitting down at the bench, to wit:

1) I hope this is publishable.
2) I hope my hypothesis is correct.
3) I hope I collected enough data.
4) I hope this work is broadly useful to society.
5) I hope this work shows something substantially different than what my reviewers have read in the last few months.
6) I hope after I publish this it will be easier to get funding.
7) I hope I'm invited to present this at a meeting somewhere nice.

etc. . . .

Edwards, as I said, knows all this, so she doesn't make the claim that you need objectivity to do good science. Instead she claims that scientists need the appearance of objectivity to maintain the respect of the public. Which, if you think about it, reduces to an odd claim: in order to maintain the public's trust, we must all participate in misleading the public about what a scientist is and how science happens.

Because science, in fact, does not depend on objectivity or impartiality. That's why no one cares that Albert Einstein wrote "On Socialism" or that Issac Newton needed a special dispensation of the king to refuse the ordination required of all professors at Trinity College or that Jonas Salk, having invented the polio vaccine, urged its wide adoption.

Science does not require impartial individuals because science can be tested. Science is grounded is data, and the reproduction of results. A baseball umpire or a traffic cop or a federal judge ought to be known for their impartiality, because of the inherent subjectivity of their judgments and the difficulty of revisiting them. Science, ideally, involves careful judgements based upon shared facts and evidence that can be modified or discarded as they are repeatedly reexamined.

Appearing objective, then, is essentially a dodge, a hustle, the opposite of honest. If we are going to try and buttress scientists' respectability by that, we ought to ask Dr Edwards why her blog photo shows neither glasses nor a white coat even though both of those things (2) have been shown to increase the trust of the public in the speaker.

Ultimately I find Edwards position sad. She began with a personal refusal to engage with politics, as is absolutely her right. She extended this to an ill-considered attack on other scientists who made a different choice. Predictably this has led to praise and admiration from the usual suspects who are more than happy to ignore her "mainstream beliefs" (3) and celebrate her rejection of "activism." This praise seems to have turned her head, and only time will tell if she has, as it seems, embarked on the long downward spiral into irrelevance and Curryism.

1) Compare medicine, where practitioners take an oath "to teach [students] this art; and that by my teaching, I will impart a knowledge of this art to my own sons, and to my teacher's sons, and to disciples bound by an indenture and oath according to the medical laws."

2) Glasses convey the impression the wearer is intelligent and good.
White coats convey the impression the wearer is an authority and is trustworthy.

3) Much like they ignore the multitude of contractions between the various mutually incompatible "skeptic" theories.