Sorry, this felt a bit rushed and PollyFillaesque, I hope it’s vaguely interesting…
Ben Goldacre, The Guardian, Saturday 12 December 2009
So as we career towards a mediocre outcome in Copenhagen, why do roughly half the people in this country not believe in man-made climate change, when the vast, overwhelming majority of scientists do?
It certainly predates the leaked emails (on which there is surely nothing more to say). Firstly we have the obvious psychological issues. We’re predisposed to undervalue adverse outcomes which are a long way off in the future, especially if we might be old or dead soon. We’re inherently predisposed to find cracks in evidence that suggests we should do something we don’t want to do, hence the enduring appeal of stories about alcohol being good for you, and policy initiatives have hardly helped on this front. Suggesting that personal behaviour change will have a big role to play, when we know that telling people to do the right thing is a spectacularly weak way to change behaviour, is an incomplete story: you need policy changes to make better behaviour easier, and we all understand that fresh fruit on sale at schools is more effective than telling children not to eat sweets.
This is exacerbated, of course, because climate science is difficult. We could discuss everything you needed to know about MMR and autism in an hour: the experimental techniques of epidemiology and other disciplines, how they’ve been misrepresented, the results, strengths, and weaknesses of the key studies. Climate change will take two days of your life, for a relatively superficial understanding: if you’re interested, I’d recommend the IPCC website itself, where they have a series of three executive summaries for policy makers, which are perfectly good pieces of humourless popular science writing.
On top of that, we don’t trust governments on science, because we know they distort it. We see that a minister will sack Professor David Nutt, if the evidence on the relative harms of drugs is not to the government’s taste. We see the government brandish laughable reports to justify DNA retention by the police, or their stance on copyright, with flawed figures, suspicious missing data, and bogus arguments. We know that evidence based policy is window dressing, and now, when they want us to believe them on climate science, to justify Stern’s paltry 1% of global GDP to mitigate a global horror, we doubt.
Then, of course, the media privilege foolish contrarian views because they have novelty value, and also because “established” views get confused with “establishment” views, and anyone who comes along to have a pop at those gets David vs Goliath swagger.
But the key to all of this is the recurring mischief of criticisms mounted against climate change. I am very happy to affirm that I am not a giant expert on climate change: I know a bit, and I know that there’s not yet been a giant global conspiracy involving almost every scientist in the world (although I’d welcome examples). More than all that, I can spot the same rhetorical themes re-emerging in climate change foolishness that you see in aids denialism, homeopathy, and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists.
Among all these, reigning supreme, is the “zombie argument”: arguments which survive to be raised again, for eternity, no matter how many times they are shot down. “Homeopathy worked for me”, and the rest. Zombie arguments survive, they get up and live again, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments. There’s a huge list of them at realclimate.org, with refutations. There are huge lists of them everywhere. It makes no difference.
“CO2 isn’t an important greenhouse gas”, “Global warming is down to the sun”, “what about the cooling in the 1940s?” says your party bore. “Well,” you reply, “since the last time you raised this, I went and checked, and it turns out that there were loads of suphites in the air in the 1940s to block out the sun, made from the slightly different kind of industrial pollution we had back then, and the odd volcano, so that’s sort of been answered already, ages ago.”
And they knew that. And you know they knew you would find out, if you could be botheredbut they went ahead anyway and wasted your time, raising it, knowingly, as if it was unrefuted, as if it was unrefutable, and worse than that, you both know they’re going to do it again, to some other poor sap. And that is simply rude.