Category Archives: Speculation

The sacrifices one must make (part 2): should Gillard resign for the good of the nation? Yes.

My post on whether or not Julia Gillard should stand aside  as Prime Minister got a little attention. But it was not an easy thing to suggest, especially given the vitriol and hatred the Prime Minister has experienced. I do not wish to “let the bastards win”. No one does.

But what matters now is the future of nation, the skeletal climate change policy framework we have only just begun to implement and a genuine contest of ideas.

There are times when personal careers have to be sacrificed.

This is such a time.

The editors of The Age have come to similar conclusions, arguing for “the good of the nation” Julia Gillard must stand aside:

It is time for Julia Gillard to stand aside as leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party, as Prime Minister of Australia, so that vigorous, policy-driven democratic debate can flourish once again. Ms Gillard should do so in the interests of the Labor Party, in the interests of the nation and, most importantly, in the interests of democracy. The Age’s overriding concern is that, under Ms Gillard’s leadership, the Labor Party’s message about its future policies and vision for Australia is not getting through to the electorate. Our fear is that if there is no change in Labor leadership before the September 14 election, voters will be denied a proper contest of ideas and policies – and that would be a travesty for the democratic process.

And that:

The opposition under Tony Abbott has contentious policies on the carbon tax, the mining tax and schools funding; these are just the start of it. Yet Labor under Ms Gillard has been unable to step up to the contest. Mr Abbott is being allowed to run almost entirely unchallenged with his preposterous claim that a Coalition government would ”stop the boats”, in part by turning back the pathetic trail of rickety vessels laden with asylum seekers. This is a potentially dangerous and deeply dispiriting approach. Labor’s inability to unscramble this sloganeering is damning.

Time is running out. Labor needs to refresh its public face and present a compelling, united and inspiring voice. It is capable of doing so. Now it must find the will. There may only be one chance to minimise the damage that appears inevitable in September. To do nothing would implicitly weaken the democratic choice. If it is to be done, it is best done now. But it must be an unequivocal and energising change for the better.

There was nothing prescient in what I wrote, nor do I think the MSM pays much attention to bloggers such as myself. Farifax’s Sydney Morning Herald said the same thing a few weeks back.

It is simply that I am not alone in reading the situation or the risks should Labor continue to be led by Julia Gillard. Commentators across all sections of the media and on both sides can see the writing on the wall.

Is it fair? No.

Did Gillard deserve to be treated with respect? Yes.

Was she handed an extraordinarily difficult situation? Yes.

Was overt sexism a feature of the attacks on her? Yes.

Was the malice of the shock jocks and News Limited a factor? Yes.

As a nation, we need to reflect on just how toxic the level of debate has become these past few years. I lay much of the blame on News Limited and the Coalition. But the blame also rests with the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan.

The nexus for all this strife began when the “kitchen sink” cabinet that included Swan and Gillard convinced Rudd not to take us to a double dissolution election on the carbon price. At that time the public and mood of the nation was with them.

But they blinked, they thought they could ditch a policy which helped deliver them office in 2007. Since then Labor has been paying the price for the failure of the first iteration of the ETS under Rudd.

They thought we lived in a time of “politics as usual”.

Politics has been reshaped by climate change: it is time to acknowledge that reality.

This is the new normal on so many fronts.

If you want to proportion blame then start with this decision. 

Julia’s finest hour, and the speech that will be her enduring legacy:

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Desperately seeking paradigm shifts: sceptics looking for new ways to attack consensus


Paradigm shift, really?

Anti-science movements evolve: new sceptic lines of attack

The recent paper by John Cook 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.

Lu’s paper has been championed by The Australian, other sections of the conservative press and politicians as evidence the scientific paradigm on global warming has been “overturned”.

His claims have been examined and dismissed numerous times, yet Lu persists promoting his discredited theory [for good commentary see Eli Rabett here and here].

I suspect it’s revival and championing by sceptics has something do with the success of the Cook 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


The vaccine debate is 200 years old

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.


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The “faith “of conservatives and climate change: values and world views in conflict – god, free markets and denial

Another great post from fellow blogger Mothincarnate about how we see the world, and what drives our acceptance or rejection of science.

Moth and I have been discussing the concept of “neo-fundamentalism“, a tentative way to describe the blending of religiosity, the denial of science and “faith” in free markets that seems to pervade aspects of the conservative movement in the United States and to a lessor extent Australia. It includes the following trends:

  • a conservative Christian world view (not just Evangelical)
  • motivated and with a large supporter base that straddles class/education divides
  • dismissive of science such as AGW, stem cells and evolution
  • dismissive of expertise and expert opinion in contradiction to core values
  • dismissive of government (small or big), equating it with socialism
  • free market advocates
  • socially conservative: hostile to the expanding ethical circle that includes gays, minorities, secularists
  • willingness to embrace aspects of the conspiracy culture to explain failures or limits to action

It is an admittedly clumsy approach to trying to capture, or muse upon, broader social and political trends. Readers are welcome to comment.

See his post below.

Imposing Meaning: The Conflict Between Ideologies Masked as Reasoned Debate

Light in the absence of eyes, illuminates nothing. Visible forms are not inherent in the world, but are granted by the act of seeing. Events contain no meaning in themselves, only the meaning the mind imposes on them. Yet, the world endures…

As a teenager, I was obsessed with the animated series Æon Flux. The above is part of a quote that opened episode 5 of season 3, where Trevor Goodchild was having a ‘Hamlet moment’. It has been changed in a more recent release of the series.

It has stuck with me for close to twenty years now. Memorised. Hardwired.

Musing over it today, I see it differently than I did as a teenager. Perhaps less moved, but still as thought provoking.

While meaningful to the state of mind of the character, it is at once an illustration of the human ego and also desperately fatalistic.

Visible light is but a small region of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some species, take for instance certain bee species, can see wavelengths outside this range. Perhaps on a much grander scale, infrared plays more influence over the universe…

More importantly, in reflecting the meaning of events, we hit the fatalistic note. It’s the mind that imposes meaning. Well, of course it is.

Meaning is, after all, the way a self-aware entity makes sense of the information it receives about the known universe surrounding it. Meaning is as important to the self-aware entity as is itself. It has to be. One cannot be self-aware without assigning meaning to the information that bombards for it is that information which leads to the persistence of the self-awareness (ie. staying alive).

This is an important note to my recent posts on values and science. The separation of personal values and scientific certainty is clearly an illusion, based on an impersonal (and functionally impractical) philosophy. All information that reaches each one of us must contain both objective and subjective meaning or else it would be rejected as meaningless. This seems a no-brainer, but in practice, we do separate meaning into pigeon holes as though there were functionally different categories, which in practice, there clearly are not.

I’d like to thank the author of Climate and Stuff for the post, Good God! This is realy scary stuff. In the post, the author highlights some of the points of the declaration on global warming from the Cornwall Alliance. While no surprises are to be found, they deserve reflection by anyone interested in the communication of increasing scientific certainty.

Here are a couple worth pointing out;

What we believe

1) We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory.  Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.

What we deny

1) We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.

Points 2 – 5 are also worthy of reflection and debate, however as they are hinged on these two points of belief and denial (I thank them for using that word) and are points rebutted elsewhere, at great length, I won’t bother here.

The first thing to note here is that the points quoted are clearly wrong. A casual look into species abundance over the industrial era demonstrates ecosystems are not robust, suited for human flourishing, they are self-evidently fragile to outside impacts, such as human induced degradation. So much so that Rockström et al (2009) places biodiversity loss as significantly more impacted by human activity than climate change, ocean acidity and a host of other variables. Left to their own devices, with ample range and resources, it has been demonstrated that ecosystems can be resilient (Fischer et al 2006), but this remains contradictory to the rest of the statements being made.

The core value being address in this declaration is that the earth and ecosystems are “created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence”. This is the meaning that many minds have imposed on the information they received.

Directly, it has nothing to do with climate change or biodiversity loss, but simply that the world is our divine playground in which we can do no wrong. Thus, errors such as those I’ve pointed out above miss the point of the declaration entirely. To say as much or to point out that “minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry” relates to more than 10 gigatonnes additional CO2 per year and can only be considered “miniscule” if unfairly balanced against Nitrogen and Oxygen (both of which play no role in the greenhouse effect) is translated to, “you are wrong about your core value; that is, your god”.

I am not certain about my reader, but I’m not here to challenge the religious faiths of other people. They can choose to believe any ancient mythology of their choosing. However, I don’t want their beliefs to be shoved onto me. Here is a clear example of faith based values doing just that; through the continuing paralysis on both biodiversity loss and climate change I am party to ideologies that amount to, “she’ll be right – God’s looking after us.”

I find such apparent dependency (assuming there is a god looking after us) infantile and degrading, especially when it is obvious the Raphus cucullatus (Dodo), the Thylacinus cynocephalus (Thylacine) and Rheobatrachus silus (Gastric-brooding frog) among others as well as the difference in ambient conditions between the earth and her satellite all stand as evidence to the contrary.

Hence such musings have not only exposed the core values of people such as those of the Cornwell Alliance, but also my own. At the root, I cannot help but feel I am being asked to relinquish a sense of control – thus meaning – to my life. I’m being asked to take a leap of faith that common-sense tells me is a bad move.

It’s easy to see how quickly such discussions can go astray.

While we may be addressing the science, in reality, we’ve walked into a debate over ideologies; in the meaning the mind imposes on events. How we avoid this, when such groups as the Cornwell Alliance explicitly thread their theology to certain views of the world (such as climate change and biodiversity loss), remains to be seen.

Personally, I won’t hold my breath on a superpower saving us from ourselves. I just can’t do it. History is too full of plague, famine, extinction and hardship that I can’t take solace in a higher force whom, we are told, sides with the victors. Likewise, in weaving their core values to a certain way of seeing the world,* it seems clear that such people are equally unlikely to budge.

So what remains? My suggestion would be to question. “What real world evidence do you have that ecosystems are robust and self-correcting?” or “How does extinction fit into this?” or “Climate has indeed changed over the millennia – but it has been too cold and too hot to support human life in a way that “flourishes” today, what if this occurs again?” for instance.

You would be unlikely to change their minds, true, but maybe, just maybe, the cracks might start forming between the evidence available and the contradictory meaning already imposed. Hopefully, at the very least, the poor marriage between the evidence and certain ideologies may lead groups such as the Cornwell Alliance to unpick the threads they’ve sowed between the two.  Maybe they will find a better match with governance – good stewardship of a wonderful world – as a divine practice over unquestioning dependence.

Who knows? It couldn’t hurt to try.


*The Cornwell Alliance lists a number of signers with a scientific background. I have to admit, I feel the science teachers of these signers failed them. The most important lesson one should be taught in science is to be plastic with the evidence. We all have pet hypotheses, but all too often they eventually crash and burn. Even Newtonian physics can only go so far – falling to pieces on the very small or very fast scales. For a scientist to sign a declaration stating that the universe is set in one way, perfectly definable today, represents a lapse of understanding, that will look as silly in retrospect as a similar historical document would regarding the flatness of the earth or pivotal (and unchanging) position of the earth in space.

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