As a lay person, I have the utmost respect for the work of scientists and for the scientific process itself. It’s not blind faith. I recognise like all human institutions its imperfect. To paraphrase Churchill’s quip about capitalism “science is the worst system until you consider the alternatives”.
In my mind the scientific method is the best way to test claims about the natural world. It’s a filter for good and bad ideas.
However, I’m no starry-eyed science groupie. I appreciate the claims made by science need to be backed up with evidence. I admire individual scientists such as Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson. Not only because they are brilliant thinkers and entertaining writers, but because each has striven to make science accessible to a lay audience.
Dawkin’s “Selfish Gene” had a profound effect on my world view, while one of my favourite autobiographies is Wilson’s “The Naturalist”. Each has done a marvellous job in bringing the results of science into the public realm.
The decline and fall of Ian Plimer
Still, I recognise scientists are fallible human beings, subject to the same prejudices and cognitive biases we all are.
Therefore there is nothing sadder than the fall of Ian Plimer, the once respected sceptic and trained scientist. What is sad is his descent into AGW denial. It is both confusing and disappointing.
I say disappointing is because nearly fifteen years ago I purchased a copy of Plimer’s book “Telling lies for God”. In my mind it is still one of the best books out there dissecting the claims of creationists. Over the years I passed my copy of “Telling lies for God” around or recommended it others interested in the debate. The writing was accessible, the book itself entertaining and informative. However, Plimer seems to have turned his back on science.
I say confusing, because he has clearly seemed morph into the very thing he spent a great portion of his life fighting. I watched his performance on ABC’s late line a few months ago and was struck by how clearly he had morphed into a caricature of the creationists he so actively fought.
Stare into the abyss and you end up looking at yourself
I watched the debate and was immediately struck by what Plimer was doing: the “Gish Gallop“.
Again and again, Plimer would throw out a mess of unrelated facts in an attempt to confuse the audience and George Monboit who he was debating. Every time Monboit tried to tie him down, he squirmed away with more red herrings and falsities.
The Gish Gallop was named after the prominent creationist Duane Gish Plimer used to debate. Gish would commonly throw out dozens of facts, assertions and arguments in a rapid fire delivery style. The intent was to bamboozle the audience and bludgeon the opponent with arguments.
Plimer’s performance and his recent writings on climate change mirror Gish’s strategy. Plimer has become the thing he fought. He has morphed into an anti-science “maverick”.
Pariah or maverick? The Good Weekend profile
Last weekend the Melbourne Age published an interesting profile on Plimer. The journalist spent time with Plimer and talked to colleagues and scientists. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a man fighting against the tide of scientific evidence .
Why Plimer chooses to deny the science we will probably never now. It seems like professional jealousy, to quote the article;
“As for the science of global warming, Plimer’s critique is rooted in two main grievances. Firstly, he feels his own science has been ignored. “That’s why I wrote the book [Heaven and Earth],” says Plimer… and if you expunge geology,. you exclude the dimension of time…Secondly, he abhors the (relatively) young science of computer modelling.”
Plimer is given sufficient time to make his points. The article strives for the journalistic standard of “balance”. However it is the articles ending that is the most telling. Mike Archer, a noted palaeontologist who used to tag team with Plimer in debates with creationists notes with sadness Plimer’s descent into denial:
“Ian’s a danger today, because he’s the excuse that too many who need to act are citing for not doing so,” says Archer. “My worry about Ian’s activities is that he seems to be applying what he and I loathed about the creationists we debated. Sorry to be so blunt, but I think that somewhere along the way Ian has lost his membership card to the science club.”
Indeed, Prof. Plimer may very well have.
 Climate of doubt, John van Tiggelen The Age “Good Weekend” March 6 2010, page 21 ff.