Guest essay by John Ridgway
My father, when he was alive, used to be a wire rope salesman. In that capacity he would tour the coalmines of the North of England, trying to sell the cables by which colliers would be lowered into their abyss. One day during the early 1980s, when prime minister Margaret Thatcher was at her zenith, he returned from work to reveal a startling fact:
“I can predict which coalmine is the next to be closed down,” he proclaimed. We all sat back and listened obediently.
Apparently, the National Coal Board had a substantial stock of roof joists that had been purchased to shore up any new excavations. Clearly, in view of the ongoing programme of pit closures, these were soon to become entirely redundant. However, what to do with them in the meantime? The solution was as inspired as it was devious: The entire national stock was to be stored at just one of the collieries. With such a huge overhead of redundant assets to account for, the chosen mine was bound to appear financially unviable when assessed. Accordingly, the coalmine would be summarily closed down and the joists would be moved on to the next hapless pit held firmly within Thatcher’s governmental crosshairs. My father’s peripatetic job enabled him to discern a pattern of behaviour that would have escaped the attention of those whose only clue of impending doom was the unexpected delivery of lorry-loads of shiny new joists. When visiting a pit, all my father needed to observe was the re-appearance of that increasingly familiar pile of beams; then he knew which mine was next for the axe. Thus was Thatcher able to scourge the North of England, like some latter-day William the Conqueror, administering death by spreadsheet.
Nowadays, the erstwhile coalmining communities, bereft of their economic lifeblood, stand as models of the UK’s creaking welfare system. The colliers, once proud and strong men, scuttle about on mobility scooters, sustained by oxygen bottles to mitigate the worst effects of their occupational emphysema. Rusting iron statues adorn many of these villages. They depict the men in their pomp, wielding statuesque picks and shovels; a well-intended homage to the communities’ heritage. It’s just a shame such respect was not forthcoming when it was most needed. I don’t like going home any more.
Whether or not one sees such a sad decline as an inevitable consequence of the depletion of finite resources, the collateral damage resulting from a political war between a government and over-powerful unions, or even the price to be paid to save our children from the risk of global warming, is not the point. The reason I recount this story is that it demonstrates just how easily integrity can be discarded when it gets in the way of a ‘noble’ cause. The roof-joist trick wears the same bouquet of duplicity that I sometimes detect within the advocacy of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW). If only out of loyalty to my scientific upbringing, I would dearly love to accept without question the CAGW arguments on offer. But every time I get the magnifying glass out, I find something creeping amongst the detail that I don’t like the look of. As a result I am left devoted only to my doubts.
We’re All Doing It
Climatology is the motherboard for many causes, each of which may be tainted by short-circuited morality. So let us not kid ourselves, it isn’t just the Water Melons who push the boundaries. Yes, there is the cherry pie baking, the HARKing, the ‘hiding of the decline’ and . . . well, basically everything that Al Gore has ever said on the subject. But on the other hand, it is not uncommon to find opponents of the CAGW hypothesis playing games with the data. We are all desperate to have our instinctive judgement validated, and whenever it happens, you’ve got to admit it, it doesn’t half feel good. Who amongst us can say, hand on heart, that the release of dopamine experienced when the brain rewards us for getting something right1 hasn’t turned us into confirmation junkies? And, as with all drug addiction, there is that temptation to go to any extreme to secure the next fix. That is why it is so important to be constantly on one’s guard. I say I am devoted to doubt, but wouldn’t a true devotee be prepared to doubt such dubiety?
So I have to ask myself, is it the climate science consensus that lacks integrity, or is my scepticism merely a smokescreen for a lack of integrity on my own part? That is certainly what Team CAGW would say: I just don’t want to believe. I’m wantonly ignorant because it doesn’t suit my purposes to support the actions required to deal with the problem (I know most of my Big Oil sponsors certainly feel that way). Or maybe I just hanker for a return to the good old days, perhaps with a miraculously revitalised coal industry. I just can’t accept that the world has changed, and so I’m in denial. That’s it! I’m just a no-good, no-clue climate change denier.
Inevitably, there will be those for whom at least some of the above applies. Which is just fine and dandy, because that gives those on one side of the debate (at least) all the straw men they require to feed their own bias. That’s the best thing about confirmation bias; it endorses the assumption that all your opponents come from the same degenerate stock. When we promote our position, we do so against the weakest version of our opponents’ argument and then unfairly attribute this weak reasoning to all our adversaries. This habit of placing all opponents into the same psychological camp is an obvious error to make and, therefore, should be easy to avoid. But, unfortunately, this is not the case. As a CAGW supporter, you can even get a degree in such stereotyping – it’s called ecopsychology.
I Talk to the Trees, But They Don’t Listen to Me
The basic idea behind ecopsychology is that mankind’s modern disconnect with nature is a prime source of the ecological disrespect that you see exemplified by your typical CAGW sceptic. Furthermore, the malaise has resulted in such a profound loss of psychological integrity that CAGW scepticism is tantamount to a psychiatric condition; not only are we disconnected from nature, but by failing to accept the self-evident truth of CAGW we are also patently disconnected from reality. We should all hang our heads in delusional shame.
In truth, ecopsychology is a pretty heady cocktail of cod psychology and environmentalism that begs outright dismissal. But how many of us have a degree in ecopsychology from Naropa University, the Viridis Graduate Institute, Prescott College Arizona, or any of the other equally world famous seats of learning that offer such a qualification? Have you even engaged in the ‘Ferocious Integrity GreenWave Process’ yet? I’m guessing not. So perhaps we should withhold our hasty judgement, and work just a little harder for our next dopamine fix. For my part, I didn’t want to casually dismiss the ecopsychology phenomenon without having first looked into it in some depth. So I spent more time than I should have, scouring the internet for a deeper understanding of what it is all about.
I’d like to say that I’ve now fathomed the ecopsychology movement, but the further I descended the rabbit hole, the curiouser and curiouser it all got for me.2 The only thing that I could discern with any surety is that you don’t need to understand even the basics of environmental science to have gained your master’s degree – though it does help to have hugged the odd tree or two. So, actually, I quite resent the idea that such people can pontificate upon my lack of mental integrity when they have invested so little of themselves in ensuring the integrity of their own beliefs.
Shall we leave it there? There is another popular denunciation of scepticism that I’d like to address.
Uncertainty for Hire
Naomi Oreskes has done more than most to explore the motivation of those who would oppose the consensus view on climate change. In her book, ‘Merchants of Doubt’, she posits that such opposition closely parallels previous attempts to discredit inconvenient science. Amongst her examples are the historical challenges against the idea that smoking causes cancer, that acid rain is destroying our forests, and that CFCs are depleting the ozone layer. In each case, as she explains, organisations with vested interests employed scientists to apply a veneer of respectability to tendentious uncertainty.
I don’t doubt that she has a point, but it isn’t one that has any bearing on my own outlook. As far as I am concerned, all she succeeds in doing is to reinforce the view that scientists do not operate in a social or political vacuum and so one has to be circumspect in accepting what any of them have to say, whether or not they are on the fringe. It is important that she highlights the problem, but her argument is oversold when she opines that folk such as myself have been beguiled into trusting bogus science and that is why we are unprepared to sign up to Club Ninety Seven. The truth is that I had a road to Damascus experience3 in which I was forced to abandon my naïve view of scientists. I came to realise that modern day science is much messier and more prone to abuse than it was in the days of Newton, Maxwell and Einstein. It is this disenchantment that robs me of my unconditional faith in the majority.
So I hate to burst the Oreskes bubble, but the seeds of my scepticism were not sown by the likes of Seitz and Singer; my scepticism was nurtured by the output of the likes of Michael Mann, Rosanne D’arrigo, Phil Jones and whoever it is who is writing the IPCC’s executive summaries. Unlike Naomi Oreskes, I do not accept that climate science’s integrity was broken as a result of political interference from the right wing, or the left for that matter. It had already been broken once the majority of climate scientists started to adopt unfalsifiable speculation as their primary role.4 The political intriguing is only possible because climatology lacks the scientific rigour to withstand it. Unconcerned with any of this, Oreskes seems to think that a scientific consensus is sufficient proof of integrity but, unfortunately, integrity is like Humpty Dumpty; once it is broken, not all the king’s horses and all king’s men can put it back together again. Playing the consensus card just doesn’t help.
By having such faith in scientific consensus,5 Oreskes sees a greater significance in the political backing of the minority view than she does for the majority. As far as the minority is concerned, she presumes that it requires its political backing because it has no scientific validity by which it can stand on its own two feet. In contrast, the majority position is self-validating, and the fact that it has political support in bucket loads is quite immaterial. In her world view everything is rather simple: Scientific consensus engenders political admiration – it’s all very innocent. Fringe views only survive because of political skulduggery – it’s all very shady. Am I alone in finding such an analysis naïve?
As I see it, the Oreskes argument is ultimately disingenuous. As with so many denouncements of scepticism, it confidently inveighs against a presupposed loss of integrity whilst failing to acknowledge that the integrity upon which such confidence is founded is far from secure. However, Naomi Oreskes is not alone in failing to recognise the prejudicial nature of her noble quest.
In the Integrity of Certitude We Trust
There are many ways to lose integrity. In some cases the individuals concerned are quite aware of the moral and ethical ramifications of what they say or do. Those who were ferrying joists from pit to pit back in the 1980s knew what they were up to, but they did it just the same because they believed in the righteousness of their cause. Likewise, scientists who may be tempted to tune their climate models purely to fit the existing record will do so because they wish to be part of a group who they believe are shining a light on the truth, even though they must realise such tuning is not a legitimate practice. That said, loss of integrity does not necessarily entail deliberate deception. It may result simply through the abandonment of an open mind.
If you look on YouTube you can find a number of presentations on the theme of ‘How to talk to a climate change denier’.6 Such advice, you will find, is offered in earnest tones, reminiscent of those used in Sunday School. There is no way that such individuals would see themselves as lacking integrity. Indeed, the sincerity is suffocating. However, as you peruse the advice on offer, you will search in vain for that most valuable of all: Try listening carefully to your so-called denier to discern whether there is any truth or wisdom behind what they are saying. The reason why this advice cannot be found is because it makes no sense to want to understand someone’s point of view when all that is really wanted or expected is compliance. This, I believe, is a serious mistake, as it is only by challenging one’s own views that one can safeguard their integrity. I hesitate to say it, since it is such a cliché, but this sort of approach is pure religion. As with all the attacks on climate science scepticism, there is more than a hint of the ‘he who hath no faith’ admonishment about it.
Last night I had a nightmare. I dreamt there was a knock on the door, and when I answered, standing before me was a family attired in smart suits, clutching leather satchels. The head of the family stepped forward and, thrusting a leaflet into my hand, said, “Did you know that Al Gore loves you?”
I woke up in a cold sweat. I had foreseen the death of integrity.7
1 There are several good books available that provide an accessible account of the brain chemistry accompanying our decision-making. For example, I can recommend, ‘The Decisive Moment’, by John Lehrer, ISBN 978 1 84767 313 8. In the United Sates the same book was published under the title, ‘How We Decide’. I think the main point to take away from reading such material is that cognitive biases are universal. One cannot use them to explain climate change ‘denial’ unless you are also willing to explain how they cause blind faith in the scientific consensus. The reality is that psychological explanations are two a penny.
2 I gave up after reading, ‘We helped each other realize that our love for or attraction to Nature that we were exploring was our 54 natural senses organically registering Albert Einstein’s Higgs Boson Unified Attraction Field attracting all things into consciously belonging in the Universe’s time and space of the moment’. I think it’s fair to say that ecopsychologists are not the CAGW theory’s finest ambassadors.
3 Actually, it happened about thirty years ago on my journey back from work. Someone was being interviewed on my car radio about a new and relatively little-known hypothesis. The interviewee was concerned that by restricting research funding exclusively to this new idea, the government was at risk of eventually undermining the integrity and credibility of the scientific discipline concerned. This was my introduction to the economic, political and sociological reality of science. It was also my introduction to an interesting new hypothesis called Anthropogenic Global Warming.
4 And then, of course, came Climategate.
5 I believe it was Professor Oreskes who started the whole ‘my army is bigger than your army’ series of papers with: Oreskes, N. (2004), “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change.”, Science, 306: 1686. PMID 15576594, doi:10.1126/science.1103618.
6 A particularly revealing one is offered by George Marshall of Climate Outreach. But be warned, it requires investing twenty minutes of your life and you will never get it back.
7 This essay is dedicated to the memory of my father, John Simpson Ridgway. RIP dad.