Friday, 13 April 2012

Climate Change? Shhh, Don't Tell Anyone. You'll Regret It

"Michael E. Mann is a member of the Pennsylvania State University faculty, holding joint positions in the Departments of Meteorology and Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI). He shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with other scientists who participated in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

That's the editors note for an opinion feature by CNN on events that unfolded in relation to Mr Mann and about which I am going to write. The feature, dated 28th March can be found here. In fact, we can go further in looking at Mr Mann's credentials - he received undergraduate degrees in physics and applied mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley, a masters degree in physics from Yale University and a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Yale. He is the author of more than 140 peer-reviewed and edited publications.


His CV sounds impressive. He presents, by virtue of it, as someone who should be regarded as an expert in his field. Apparently, however, some disagree.

Mr Mann puts the scenario best: "Imagine you are sitting in your office simply doing your job and a nasty e-mail pops into your inbox accusing you of being a fraud. You go online and find that some bloggers have written virulent posts about you. That night, you're at home with your family watching the news and a talking head is lambasting you by name. Later, a powerful politician demands all your e-mails from your former employer."


This happened to him because he worked on Climate Change research in the late 90's and, when it became public, he was vilified, like many other science professionals, by what he describes as a "well-funded anti-science campaign". That resonates with me because this is not 1210 and we are not anticipating the passing of the Condemnations in Paris nor is it the Renaissance where we might expect to see Copernicus and, a century later, Galileo cowering under the might of the Catholic Church. In the 21st Century, science is practised by professionals interested in evidence. It is up to us how we interpret that evidence and how we do so is the most compelling demonstration of our objectivity there can be.


Mann calls it the "scientization of politics" [sic] - he's wrong about that, it's worse. It's the politicisation of science. Science is all about evidence - politics is all about the obfuscation of evidence. Politicians use evidence, or more correctly misuse, to bolster and underpin their (short-term) objectives. As Mann observes, commercial entities have a history of attacking science when it impacts their profits and, in a world when commercial entities have more wealth and power than some nation states, that should worry us greatly. In February 2012, the Guardian reported on how the Heartland Institute, a think tank retained in the past by Microsoft, GM and Exxon, had documents (it later said) stolen or forged - although its explanation actually revolved around employee mistake rather than actual theft but theft is so much more inflammatory and suggestive of illegal and dishonest conduct by those Heartland would appear to be seeking to discredit. Those documents allegedly demonstrated a clear policy to "discredit climate change". The scheme included, said the Guardian in a later article, spending $100,000 for spreading the message in selected schools that "the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain - two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science". Heartland issued a statement saying the documents were fake. We should be concerned to find the truth in this disparity.

The Guardian goes on to say "the Heartland Institute, founded in 1984, has built a reputation over the years for providing a forum for climate change sceptics. But it is especially known for hosting a series of lavish conferences of climate science doubters at expensive hotels in New York's Times Square as well as in Washington DC. Some might call that an incentive which might impact on credibility.



The law requires a high standard of proof before a case can be decided and it might be said that no one could sensibly suggest human beings adopt that cumbersome standard in their daily decision-making processes. But I have heard, over the years, many defence advocates urge juries to adopt the same thought processes when considering their verdict in a case as they would in the most important decisions in their day to day affairs. We all have important decisions to make and we all consider the options before making them. Evidence is a daily part of our lives and we judge evidence based on its credibility and weight - we just don't realise we're doing it. In fact, this is what any Judge will tell a jury to do when coming to a verdict in a criminal case.


The internet has been a game changer in every part of modern, civilised human society. Yet, when it comes to the internet, we know little about the credibility of the entity (because it is not always a single person, often it's an organisation) making the statement we are considering, nor do we know what weight to give that statement because we don't know where it really comes from. That's the danger of the internet - too many people accept evidence, the provenance of which they know nothing about. Who is delivering what you are reading? How are they doing it?  To what end? What basis in fact or experience do they have to attempt to influence you? And then it becomes viral - a wonderful new word which describes succinctly and eloquently the process by which (dis)information spreads like a disease.

Mann goes on:

"In the most infamous episode, somebody stole thousands of e-mails and documents from leading climate researchers, including me. They cherry picked key phrases from the e-mails and published them out of context, like a black-and-white political attack ad with ominous music. Fossil fuel industry-funded groups gleefully spread the e-mails online and badgered the mainstream media into covering the "controversy" they had manufactured. It was no accident that this happened on the eve of a major international climate change meeting. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest exporter of oil, was the first to call for an investigation.The dozen independent investigations that did follow -- all of which exonerated the scientists -- got much less media coverage than the original nonscandal. Last year, the inspector general of the National Science Foundation found the charges against me were all baseless and reaffirmed mainstream climate science."


Who do you believe? What evidence is the most compelling to you? Did anyone investigate Heartland in the same way or were they protected from investigation?

And as Mann rightly says, this is a dangerous way to have a climate change debate. His new book depressingly aptly entitled "The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches From the Front Lines" is on precisely this point. We are at war with short-termists - for example, those who devastate rain forests for commercial gain knowing that trees produce the oxygen we, and every other living thing on this planet on which we depend, require to exist; those who produce cigarettes knowing they are addictive and cause lung cancer. I name only two but of course there are many more examples. 


Commercial entities are run by human beings, and human beings are motivated by self-interest. We are failing to deal with the issue because it is in the interests of so many to muddy the waters. We live in a world dominated by short-termism. Politics runs in cycles of four years - the question on the lips of those wielding power is 'will we get re-elected' not 'what can we do to change things'? In the UK, the trustworthiness of those we have elected was so starkly called into question in the last few years following the expenses scandal. Then, ambiguous rules were blamed - none of them realised that they should not have needed to have been told that what they were doing was fundamentally dishonest. How then, can you expect to find persuasive the words of individuals who have been so utterly dishonest in the past? Commercial entities have too much power for their undemocratic, unelected status and necessarily skewed priorities. Their impartiality is non-existent by definition.


What evidence you accept in your search for the truth demonstrates in the most clear terms your objectivity. A favourite question of a lawyer from a layperson is 'how can you defend someone you know is guilty?' We've all had it. The answer is, I suspect, the generally same for all honest legal professionals - who am I to determine guilt or innocence? That's not my role - it's yours. My role is to make sure the system works and the evidence is tested. The prosecution bring the case, the defence try to knock it over. When that process is finished, the jury have seen the evidence placed under the most exacting microscope and all its flaws and blemishes exposed. Every nuance and inference is considered, stretched and abused and only then are they able to determine whether there is enough evidence, and it is compelling enough, for them to be satisfied so that they are sure of a person's guilt. It's not about truth, it's about whether there is enough evidence, which is credible and persuasive, to prove the allegation. Or to quote Aaron Sorkin's character Daniel Kaffey in 'A Few Good Men': "It doesn't matter what I believe, it only matters what I can prove." Over the years, I've found no better précis of my role.


Unless we are able to evaluate the evidence before us by judging those giving it to us and assessing their creditability, we cannot attach to it the weight it deserves. We cannot deal with the real issues, there can be no real debate. We cannot answer the fundamental question - who is telling the truth? We are the ones needing to drive the debate and we need to make a statement about who we believe. Juries are asked to do exactly that each and every day up and down the country when they say "guilty" or "not guilty" but the evidence they are exposed to is regulated by rules that have largely been in place for hundreds of years, adapting as society changes, and analysed, after properly delivered forensic legal argument, by the greatest minds in legal history. What juries are exposed to is the 'best evidence' - the fairest evidence. 

The internet has no such sanctions, no such protections. Be careful who you listen to and be careful what you accept. These issues need to be decided and we need to decide them.

16 comments:

  1. This is an excellent, (almost) impartial piece of writing.  As you so rightly put, humans are motivated by self-interest.  People like you and me want to protect the natural environment because we derive great pleasure from it.   Those who don't want to exploit it for whatever gain they are seeking.  And as you also rightly pointed out, who are we to judge?  They key is to find a happy balance.  No one side shouting from their soap boxes will ever get everything they want.  The (environ)mentalists who chain themselves to trees are just as bad as the investors who clear cut the rainforests - it just depends on your point of view.  Extreme views are found on both sides, and both are dangerous.  Just look at Greenpeace...

    However, I do take exception to this: "devastate rain forests for commercial gain knowing that trees produce the oxygen we, and every other living thing on this planet on which we depend".  The current oxygen levels in the Earth's atmosphere have been building up over 5 billion(ish) years - if we were to burn every single iota of carbon on the planet, there would still be enough oxygen in the air to see us through to our natural extinction many times over.  Trees are vital for other reasons - preventing soil erosion, habits etc., but oxygen production is not one of them.  Please contact Dr. John Hiemstra of Swansea University for more on this if you don't believe me!

    The internet doesn't have any sanctions or editors - and I would hate for people to take misinformation away from this otherwise superb article.

    ReplyDelete
  2. First of all, thanks for the comment.

    "The current oxygen levels in the Earth's atmosphere have been building up over 5 billion(ish) years - if we were to burn every single iota of carbon on the planet, there would still be enough oxygen in the air to see us through to our natural extinction many times over." I believe you, I believe you! I had a quick look at some of his work so, without the time to judge just yet, I accept what you say. Anyone reading my article should take a look at the point you make and bear it in mind. The point I was making, which remains valid to an extent, is in relation to the motives of the individuals and corporate entities concerned. I doubt companies involved in deforestation would cease their commercial enterprises regardless of the nature of the damage it is causing and that's the issue I was (inarticulately) dealing with.
    "The (environ)mentalists who chain themselves to trees are just as bad as the investors who clear cut the rainforests - it just depends on your point of view." Actually, I don't think it does depend on your point of view - the (environ)mentalists who chain themselves to trees are hugely damaging to the credibility of legitimate climate change proponents/science professionals as their credibility is limited because of the nature of their actions.

    I agree, I am not impartial - who is - but I hope the article balanced impartiality with objectivity - I urge people simply to question and test the evidence they are given.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks for replying!  

    "The (environ)mentalists who chain themselves to trees are just as bad as the investors who clear cut the rainforests - it just depends on your point of view." Actually, I don't think it does depend on your point of view - the (environ)mentalists who chain themselves to trees are hugely damaging to the credibility of legitimate climate change proponents/science professionals as their credibility is limited because of the nature of their actions. 
         - From their point of view, they are acting in a rational way (I assume.  I don't think anyone thinks of themselves as a raving lunatic).  And they have supporters, too, which is rather frightening.  You're right about them damaging the credibility of those in the middle, and as always, those in the middle suffer the most.

    "The point I was making, which remains valid to an extent, is in relation to the motives of the individuals and corporate entities concerned. I doubt companies involved in deforestation would cease their commercial enterprises regardless of the nature of the damage it is causing and that's the issue I was (inarticulately) dealing with."
         - That's a good point, and one I missed entirely!  Sorry :-/ 

    ReplyDelete
  4. Don't apologise - I wanted to engender debate! Thanks for taking the time to put forward rational, reasoned comments in what seems to me, if twitter is anything to go by, an inflammatory subject.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I have to confess I felt a sinking feeling when I saw you blog post appear...I might be unfair but when I see the words "climate change" on an outdoor blog, I brace myself for the worse. I'm quite delighted to have read it now.

    ReplyDelete
  6. An interesting read Maz, I generally fear the worse when I read "climate change" on an outdoor blog, a nice surprise...

    ReplyDelete
  7. Enlightening, Andrew. Well written, honest, and bravo that you have the guts to stand up for climate change!

    The internet has no such sanctions, no such protections. Be careful who you listen to and be careful what you accept. These issues need to be decided and we need to decide them.

    The problem with this is simple, apart from the short-term thinking you mentioned: Many humans are too lazy to do their own thinking let alone research (I'd go on and say that many prefer to read the yellow press over a real newspaper and that the "Not In My Backyard" mentality is very strong when it comes to topics like renewable energy, but that'd be slightly off-topic =). They rather believe something that's written on the internet - be it a blog, a newspaper piece or a scientific, peer-reviewed article - than use the grey matter between their ears and make up their own mind; even if you come to the same conclusion thinking about it, maybe looking further into it, it is how a smart human should operate - not taking everything written for gospel.

    And that's where the internet, with its ability for everyone and their dog to publish their thoughts, gets messy; because there is too much noise and it is getting harder and harder to sort through the good, honest, interesting stuff (I guess that's one reason why TWIR is so popular - high-quality content served in a easy format). I'm certain we will see further technological developments in terms of what is credible content - maybe not "best evidence" but close to it (Google is working on something, I read), but until then (and even then, still) people need to activate their own brains, think, and use their bullshit filters to ignore the rubbish you read online.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I agree that many people are perhaps not geared towards using their "bullshit filters" but the more they are alerted to the risks of accepting everything the read, or at least not questioning the motives behind what they are being spoon-fed, the more chance of converting some of them to an analytical frame of mind. Personally, I am standing up for climate change - that's my position - but what I want to see is reasoned debate so that, as Jake so astutely observed, the facts are the right ones and we make decisions from informed positions. That was evidence is all about.

    ReplyDelete
  9. How can I as an average member of the public have an informed opinion on something as complex as climate science though? I'm very happy to admit that I do not hold an informed position on it, I feel it would be impossibly arrogant of me to do so. My opinion which is merely the result of my own musings on the matter but comes without any "informed" qualifier is influenced by the best available research and by the informed opinions of the best qualified people to talk about said research. I'm a discreet analyst and I don't do too badly on the old logical reasonning front so to me it is highly likely those people are onto something and the odds are in favour of them being right.

    Ask me about pizza toppings or the best Tangerine Dream album and I'll offer you a very informed and indeed definitive opinion...  ;-)

    ReplyDelete
  10. I think you need to have an informed opinion - juries do it all the time. They are given evidence and asked to evaluate it. If you don't have the time, or the inclination, that's fine but I find it hard to accept an opinion from someone who has not even given potentially the most important argument in modern times some attention. I agree with your assessment therefore when you say it would be arrogant to have an opinion but only to the extent where that assessment would be true had you made no effort to become informed. Taking the best available research and analysing it is exactly what I am talking about. Not bothering means your opinion is worth very little. Being selective about which research you read is much the same.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I might be guilty of conflating "informed opinion" with "expert opinion" Maz...

    I've spent an awful lot of time and mental energies reading on the subject, as much as someone without an array of PHD can. It is a fiendishly complex subject, I've only scratched the surface of it and I don't think I'm a particularly dim individual. I've also read the other side opinions (and indeed checked their sources).

    As mentionned above, I'm playing the odds, the likelyhood that everybody with the relevant expertise is wrong or involved in some conspiracy to pervert the truth is low which is why I do think we have a bit of a problem...

    ReplyDelete
  12. Good writing, but actually the same thing, 'what to believe and what not', existed even before the internet, with television, radio, newspapers. It's just the internet is so huge and free that there is of course even more rubbish than in other media.

    I have been following and reading a lot about climate change from the internet and other media, and your writing in an outdoor blog inspired me, being outdoor blogger myself, to write about my stance on this very very complex and controversial subject. But writing it would take for me a very long time as English is not my native language, and I wonder if it's worth it.

    To put my message shortly, I'm just really disappointed what have happened to science over the last 20 years.

    ReplyDelete
  13. If you would like, you can write it and I'll re-write it for you to ensure you get your points across.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm not really convinced the politicisation of science is anything new :) Science has been challenging established fact for a long time, and people in general resist change. The greater the disruption, the greater the reaction. Not to mention how politics and science are often seen as something happening at the border of the scientific community and greater society. Whereas I find it hard to believe that could possibly be more savage, ruthless and passive aggressive political fighting than there is within the scientific community. 
    This is a really interesting post, and I would say that to me, one of the reasons behind the climate change controversy stems from the scientific community. It is an ignorance of the stupidity of the general public when it comes to statistics. If everyone truly understood statistics, science would be a very transparent part of life. Ignorance of statistics is why people hate nuclear power, or are more afraid of shark attacks than climbing up a ladder. Scientists (should, at least) understand statistics pretty well. Couple that to the growing cynicism of 'facts' that you pick up the deeper your understanding of whatever you study becomes, and you end up at a point where even the most solid, bulletproof and basic results you come up with, and publish without any problem, are just very likely, there are always dozens of different parts of the experiment with assumptions, approximations, experimental error. You may get beautifully small error bars and minuscule P-values, but there is always doubt. Conveying that doubt, which to statistically literate people can be discounted, to the general public is where a lot of controversy arises. When someone who does not understand statistics hears there is doubt, or assumption, or correction of values, that is taken as meaning the conclusion is flawed. People want to hear facts, but there are no facts, only probabilities. People grow up learning facts about the world, and a lot of lower level science education is the unlearning of those 'facts'. Hearing evidence that is only very likely, is just not considered good enough.And for climate change, you have to account for the fact that people have reasons to want to doubt. Admitting the climate is changing because of humanity, and admitting it might have catastrophic results, means massive social change, massive costs, and of course personal inconvenience. For the scientists working on any one of the many, many theories that would explain away climate change as something other than human-caused, this quote by Upton Sinclair sums it up perfectly, 'It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it'. 

    ReplyDelete
  15. Writing using English is my passion. I know that I am not a native person but still i can consider myself as one. Making the best available research and analyzing it is exactly what I am talking about. Extreme views are found on both sides, and both are dangerous

    ReplyDelete