Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Should I continue to publish John Cook's Skeptical Science pieces?

I have an apology to make - I think.

On Monday, I commented on David Rose's piece in previous day's Mail on Sunday. His series has been tagged "The Great Green Con" and his contrarianism (with which I have no issue in principle, being awkward myself) has been expressed in a provocative style that may help sell newspapers but doesn't do much for the spirit of liberal debate. In fact Rose seems to go so far out of his way to rile that I mistakenly thought he might be Johann Hari, who did at one time use the name "David Rose"; I am sorry for the error, but I have little trust in newpapers any more and believe some of them capable of taking a black sheep back into the fold if it helps boost circulation. My bad, as the Americans say.

Rose's piece seized on the increase in Arctic ice cover as some sort of touchstone proof that the global warmists were wrong. So I cast about for some alternative explanation for this seemingly awkward fact. And came across a piece written by an Australian academic called John Cook, who described a plausible mechanism whereby ice at the other end of the world might be increasing as a result of global warming. He kindly agreed to let me republish here, and to use other material if I wished - and so I planned a series of his debunk-the-debunker pieces to run for a month or so, with the idea that it would stimulate and inform debate.

I didn't realize that I had gone pogo-sticking into a minefield.

Having left college nearly forty years ago, and only as a student, I had forgotten what I'd heard about how sharp academic controversy and rivalry can be. At Oxford, votes in the election of the University's Chancellor can be checked against the name of the voter, and careers have (it seems) come to a screeching, permanent halt just for backing the wrong candidate. I supported a friend in the last vote and found out from Who's Who that another candidate, Lord Blake, was also head of the Electoral Reform Society, which (I think) is in favour of secret ballots; my friend told me that when he was going round radio stations on the stump they treated him as an entertaining joke until he raised this point, and then he could hear the producer screaming "Cut!" into the interviewer's headphones.

Now it seems that climate change is an issue that can scarcely be discussed at all. Adherents on either side overstate their case and denigrate the opposition - deplorably like some of the politicians that infest our Mother of Parliaments. It was Andrew Neather who revealed that Labour was happy to encourage immigration partly because it would "rub the Right's nose in diversity" (though the implication of that metaphor is quite unpleasant, when you come to consider it).

Anyhow, it may well be that careers in science have also been blighted by backing the wrong candidate (would Richard Dawkins be fair to a Christian graduate student under his tutelage, I wonder; perhaps he would). And there's money in grants and lobbying to be had on both sides, too.

So the odium theologicum rages strong in this field. Alerted by very unhappy comment about John Cook, I looked for evidence that he is considered extremist or over-eager in his advocacy. His site (Skeptical Science) is certainly assertive, just as Rose's articles are, and really I've been brought up to think that science is always tentative and provisional. And so like Rose (who I think is not himself a scientist, though he has chosen a scientific subject) he invites debunkers.

Which is what I was hoping for. A backs global warming, B rejects the theory, C (Cook) tries to debunk the contrarian, D (I would hope) picks holes in the debunking.

It seems it's not quite like that. The temperature of the debate is melting everyone's cool. At a milder level, the site WattsUpWithThat features a number of articles about Cook's claims, including a recent dissection of his assertion that the overwelming majority of scientists believe in global warming; on the same issue, two other writers leap to his defence in The Guardian.

But it can get much, much worse than that. Some of the comments on The Guardian's website, reacting to David Rose, are simply psychotic. There's a lot more mental illness around than we realise; people talking with a mask on lose their humanity, it seems.

Well, I had planned a series of Cook's pieces and let people take reasoned and factual pot-shots; but I didn't intend for anyone to be seriously unhappy. I came from a family that was prepared to argue about everything - Mother voted Labour, Father Conservative (why did they both vote, I wondered) - but retained that sense that anyone can be wrong about anything. We kicked the ball around in the air, but never at anyone's head.

As far as climate goes, either it will stay much the same for the rest of human history, or get warmer, or colder (either of which could have serious consequences for us); the truth matters, even though we may not be able to predict it, and if we are helping make the environment more dangerous, then we should do something about it - if we can; but maybe we're not, and we can't, or shouldn't. But surely honest and mutually respectful debate (from all sides) has the best chance of discovering something like the truth, and helping us make decisions that are less wrong.

You'll see from the Energy and Climate page that the sidebar has links to both camps. But should I continue to print Cook's pieces here on this main page, if all it does is increase heat without light? I'm sorry if that's all it's done.

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