Thursday, February 5, 2009

climate change drama on boingboing and thoughts on skeptics

Over the course of the past day, an interesting drama related to climate change unfolded on boingboing, the internet's most popular blog. I've never seen anything quite like it.

I'll describe what happened, then write a few words about my opinion and position on "climate change skepticism."

First, boingboing guest blogger and science fiction author Charles Platt posted four consecutive "Climate Heresy" posts advocating climate change skepticism. (Links here, here, here, and here.) The posts contain lengthy reviews of books written by climate skeptics, selective presentations of evidence that supposedly refutes global warming, and a conspiracy theory info-graphic showing how everyone who believes in the threat of climate change is tied together in a tangled knot of fear.

The fact that Mr. Platt posted these to boingboing is mind-blowingly infuriating and irresponsible, and I'll explain why in a moment. But first, the reason I referred to this as a "drama" is that, less than half an hour after Mr. Platt's last post, boingbong's Cory Doctorow responded with his own series of four consecutive posts defending the science and reality of climate change (links: here, here, here, and here). Shortly thereafter, bb's Xeni Jardin weighed in with her own posts on the truth about climate change (here, here). Even bb's Mark Frauenfelder got in on the climate change action, with his live-blogging of Al Gore's TED2009 presentation.

Regular readers of boingboing will know that it is very, very unusual to see consecutive posts on the same topic, and almost never do multiple authors post on the same thing. And yet here we have 11 posts from 4 authors (one guest) in a single 24-hour period on one divisive subject. Mr. Doctorow and Mr. Platt even debate each other briefly in the comments of one post. Drama.

The politics of boingboing aside, let me try to explain why this is such a big deal to me.

First of all, I want to be clear that this post isn't about the specifics of what Mr. Platt said. I do not, and will not, debate skeptics on a point-by-point basis. It is very difficult to win such debates. Dr. Joe Romm at Climate Progress has written a lot about this (examples here and here). The reason is because most climate skeptics are unwilling to concede defeat when scientific evidence contradicts their claims, even though skeptics are happy to use outdated science, refuted theories, and/or selective evidence when they seemingly support their cause. Even when you are successfully able to scientifically defeat climate skeptic theories or selective evidence, skeptics will almost never acquiesce; rather they will simply come back with a brand new argument, and the process must repeat. Whack-a-mole could not be a more accurate analogy.

(Side note: for reference and curiosity, I recommend these links for evidence refuting specific climate denier points:

Grist's post on how to talk to a skeptic
RealClimate reponses to common contrarian arguments
Skeptical Science list of most popular skeptic arguments)

Moving on, if we ignore then the specific content of Mr. Platt's posts, then the core issue becomes whether it is appropriate to doubt the world's best and leading and consensus scientific position on climate change (that it is real and caused by humans) on the world's most popular blog.

At certain points, Mr. Platt seems to frame his posts as just healthy debate / devil's advocacy. He introduces his first climate post as follows:
At the risk of stimulating outrage, I’m going to ask some questions about climate. No one disputes that planetary warming occurred during the second half of the twentieth century; the question is whether it was primarily anthropogenic (i.e. caused by human beings). The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims that the debate on this issue is over. I’m not so sure anymore.
Later, in one of his comments replying to Mr. Doctorow, he says, "Instead you are appealing to authority, basically saying 'My experts trump your experts.' I don't think this is a strong argument, if indeed it is an argument at all."

But the problem here is that it is disingenuous and incorrect to describe the debate on the causes of climate change as having strong scientific arguments and experts on both sides. This is not a case of "some people believe this, some people believe that," with both sides having merit.

Don't get me wrong - I don't advocate a blind acceptance of anything, even science. By all means, if you don't want to unquestioningly swallow the pill of anthropogenic climate change, then don't. Let's say you are a skeptic by nature who wants to read the evidence on your own and come to your own conclusion (as Mr. Platt seems to portray himself). But if you are serious about this - about reviewing the science, about understanding the evidence for anthropogenic climate change - and you perform a true and complete review of the real science of the issue, then there is only one conclusion you can come to, and that is the conclusion reached by serious, real scientists: that climate change is being caused by humans.

Given the urgency of climate change and the impending disasters that will result from continued inaction, propagating any other conclusion is dangerous and widely irresponsible.

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Update 2/7/09: Charles Platt voluntarily decided to stop guestblogging at boingboing at couple of days early, writing (in the comments):
Of course I was not asked to leave! I certainly never meant to create that impression...

...To be fair, I did ask in advance, very carefully, if there were any rules for guest bloggers, and I also offered all my posts for preapproval.

I was dismayed by the anger response from two of the people involved, which made me wonder what else I might say that would trigger a similar reaction. Since I couldn't predict it, and I didn't want to provoke it, and I didn't want to start censoring myself, it was easiest to stop.
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