Anti-science movements evolve: new sceptic lines of attack
The recent paper by John Cook et.al. clearly showing 97% consensus among scientists that the globe has warmed in response to human activities over the last 150 years seems to have rattled large parts of the sceptic movement.
And while they have been bitterly complaining about the paper, their criticisms have failed to spill over into the mainstream media. Their counter arguments remain firmly lodged within the alternative knowledge sphere they have constructed for themselves.
Failing to gain any real traction in undermining the Cook paper, their tactics are now shifting.
The new line of attack is to undermine the idea that a scientific consensus is stable. Drawing on popular notions of the lone scientific genius (aka The Galileo Gambit) and the history of science, they are beginning to stress the instability of scientific consensus.
How effective that is remains to be seen. It may not be enough to dissuade the public from their growing appreciation a scientific consensus exists, but they’re going to give it a good try.
The hullabaloo over Lu
This may explain why of late sceptics and papers such as The Australian have latched onto the deeply flawed paper by Qin Bin Lu claiming CFCs are to blame for global warming, not CO2. Their strategy is simple:
- Claim the Lu paper has overturned the 97% consensus
- Suggest that even if the Lu paper has not overturned the 97% consensus, then consensus can be changed at a moments notice
- Therefore it would be foolish to act on climate change given these scientific uncertainties.
Whether they continue to champion Lu’s paper or not is besides the point. The tactic is designed to achieve two outcomes. Firstly, continue to undermine the public’s understanding a consensus exists. Secondly, undermine the idea of a stable and enduring consensus on any issue.
This in fact may be even more dangerous than previous lines of attack if one considers the implications of such thinking.
If the public understands there is consensus, they’re more ready to accept the science
While the public has mistakenly thought a debate between scientists has existed this is starting to change. That their attitudes can shift matters.
A study published last year in Nature Climate Change demonstrated that if informed a scientific consensus exists, the average member of the public is more likely to accept the science of climate change:
Although most experts agree that CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming (AGW), public concern has been declining. One reason for this decline is the ‘manufacture of doubt’ by political and vested interests, which often challenge the existence of the scientific consensus. The role of perceived consensus in shaping public opinion is therefore of considerable interest: in particular, it is unknown whether consensus determines people’s beliefs causally. It is also unclear whether perception of consensus can override people’s ‘worldviews’, which are known to foster rejection of AGW. Study 1 shows that acceptance of several scientific propositions—from HIV/AIDS to AGW—is captured by a common factor that is correlated with another factor that captures perceived scientific consensus. Study 2 reveals a causal role of perceived consensus by showing that acceptance of AGW increases when consensus is highlighted. Consensus information also neutralizes the effect of worldview.
Such acceptance cuts across the left-right political spectrum. For obvious reasons, the very idea of a consensus is considered anathema to the sceptics.
But if the average person can be primed to accept the science in response to understanding a consensus exists, what lines of attack can we expect from the sceptics?
Enter Lu and the idea of consensus being inherently unstable.
The would-be paradigm shifter: Lu at Waterloo
For those unfamiliar with this weeks drama in climate science, Qing Bin Lu at the University of Waterloo (NZ) claims to have overturned the scientific consensus on global warming.
It is CFCs, not CO2 to blame. As noted, this theory has long been discredited.
I suspect it’s revival and championing by sceptics has something do with the success of the Cook et.al paper and shifting public attitudes.
Luntz Mark II: desperate attempts to keep the debate going
For those with long memories or an appreciation of the history of the climate debate, maintaining public confusion was one of the central strategies suggested in the notorious Frank Luntz memo.
Luntz, a Republican operative during the Bush years suggested Republican politicians push the idea the scientific debate remained open. In 2002 Frank Luntz instructed Republican politicians to question the scientific consensus:
Thus, if the public comes to understand there is a 97% consensus, their views on global warming and the policy options available to them will change. Right? We crack what is the hardest nut in the debate.
But the merchants of doubt have a new product. With the Lu paper they are attacking the idea of a stable scientific consensus. They are tweaking their long running strategy of claiming scientific issues (not merely the consensus) remains open
It is Luntz Mark II.
Consensus: a stable ground for policy formation, or not?
The climate debate in the public sphere is not about the science: it is about policy formation.
Policies designed to mitigate climate change have been effectively stalled for decades in large parts of the world at the global level.
The sceptic position, unlike that of the IPCC or scientists is not policy neutral. In fact, sceptics and their backers are specific on policy: keep taxes on industry low, constrain or dilute environmental regulations and ensure markets remain “free”.
But if the public, and by extension politicians, accept the consensus then movement within the policy arena shifts from inaction to action.
So what are the sceptics doing in response to this perceived shift in opinion?
Shifting the debate from being about the percentages of scientists accepting a theory to that of a consensus position being insufficiently stable to form the basis of policy formulation.
It is well-known scientific uncertainty is a problem within the policy making sphere. One just has to look at how delayed the social response and regulation over the risks of tobacco smoking significantly lagged the scientific consensus.
Thus the sceptics are re-formulating their line of attack to influence both public perception and the policy sphere with this new wedge strategy.
Lone-genius-scientific-paradigm-busting-superstar: re-framing the question of scientific uncertainty and consensus
Rather than suggesting the scientists are at odds over the science, they’ve taken it a step further. They are now re-framing the question of how stable a scientific consensus can ever be.
It is the Galileo Gambit, the idea that all it takes is one individual (or one paper) to radically transform our understanding of the world.
Lu is this weeks would-be climate sceptic Galileo. Next week, next month it will be some other obscure scientist with an equally improbable hypothesis.
They’re looking for someone – anyone – to shift the scientific paradigm. Because if the paradigm “shifts’ (or has the possibility of shifting) then climate change is “not real”. Then the sceptics can continue to argue the debate is not over.
This new line of attack needs to be given consideration.
Anti-science movements don’t fade away they evolve: the long debate has barely begun
I appreciate not everyone will find the following prognosis cheery, but I think there is some validity to it.
Anti-science movements never truly fade away, their popularity ebbs and flows. Their arguments and tactics evolve and adapt.
They are long-lasting, multi-generational movements that sometimes fade into obscurity (as far as official keepers of knowledge are concerned) and re-emerge in periods of crisis.
Take vaccination as but one example.
The above cartoon by James Gillray from 1802 captures the fear that inoculation against cowpox would lead to cow like appendages sprouting from a person’s body. Indeed, it was produced for the anti-vaccination movement of the day.
Two centuries later, despite the obvious benefits and success of mass vaccination, serious doubt has crept into the public’s consciousness. We are now seeing a resurgence of diseases such as measles and whooping-cough once thought under control. As fewer people vaccinate their children, herd immunity decreases and we’re faced with resurgent pathogens. Children die.
Let us consider another example.
The Creationist movement of the 1920s started out with a very primitive set of arguments against evolution derived from criticisms stemming from the mid-to-late 19th century opposition to Darwin. The Scopes Monkey trial of the 1920s saw them suffer a setback.
The movement was dormant for several decades, as it faded into the background, a tenant of a variety of Evangelical churches in the United States. But slowly in the 1950s it began to re-emerge. In the 1970s advocates renamed Creationism “Creation Science” and gained success in promoting it as an alternative theory to the Evolutionary consensus.
Suffering a number of setbacks in a series of court tussles, creationists again reformulated the basic tenants of creationism and labelled it Intelligent Design.
The climate sceptic movement is no different. They will adapt and reformulate their lines of attack.
This broad trend needs to be given consideration.