Is having an open mind the problem?

It has occurred to me that this is a very profound and important question for our times. I suspect that most people would put having an open mind up there alongside not killing people, but is it? Having an open mind should not be confused with being tolerant and/or flexible; and we cannot afford for it to be synonymous with being undecided (but more on that later). For an individual to have an open mind, it is first of all necessary for that individual to believe that he or she has the requisite knowledge and understanding, or intellectual and analytical faculties, to assess information (if a valid conclusion is to be reached). This is OK if the question is, “Have a listen to Beethoven’s 6th Symphony and tell me whether you like it or not?” However, this is not OK if the question is, “Do you think we should accept the settled opinion of the vast majority of climate scientists who say we face an environmental catastrophe if we do not now act to prevent it?” I am not a climate scientist, so why should I suppose that I can second-guess their opinions? Therefore, any non-climate scientist who rejects the consensus view (or indeed denies its existence) must be some kind of conspiracy theorist! How can anyone claim to have an open mind if, all the time, a little voice in their head is telling them that they are being lied to? But, you may say, what are we to do if both sides of the [supposed] debate over the validity of climate science claim that the other is involved in folly, error, or deceit…? Indeed, this is what leaves most people having no fixed opinion. However, as I said on this blog a few months ago: “There is simply no evidence for [a] left-wing conspiracy to over-tax and over-regulate people (so as to make everyone poorer). Whereas, there is a great deal of evidence for a right-wing conspiracy to under-tax and under-regulate industry (so as to make a few people richer).” [Quoted from my ‘To all who say AGW is junk science’ (4 October 2011)] (N.B. For AGW, please now read anthropogenic climate disruption [ACD]) I believe it is that simple. This is because the marketplace of ideas is a nonsensical fallacy. Irrespective of how earnestly they are cherished, all opinions are not equally valid. Some people really do know better than we do. I think it is time we all accepted this as fact. As David Aaronovitch says in his Voodoo Histories – How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped modern History (2010), if all opinions are equally valid “…then we are lost… Relativism doesn’t care to distinguish between the scholarly and the slapdash, the committed researcher and the careless loudmouth, the scrupulous and the demagogic” (page 335). [See this quoted in context in my ‘All that is wrong with the “marketplace of ideas”’ (16 August 2011)] Therefore, if we indulge it, the marketplace of ideas ultimately demands that non-scientists be allowed to act as judge and jury over complex scientific matters that they do not really understand. This is exactly what most people who dissent from the consensus view of climate change insist is their right. Indeed, this is exactly what James Delingpole (JD) asserted should happen a year ago on a BBC TV programme “Meet the Climate Sceptcs”. However, this is illogical and completely insane. (N.B. There is a link to a video clip and partial transcript of JD’s interview with Sir Paul Nurse from my marketplace of ideas post linked to above). Meanwhile, though there may rarely (if ever) be certainty in science, we always have probability; and probability becomes greater when observations match or exceed theory and/or predictions. This is where we are today with climate science. The time for indecision has now passed. What we need is the wisdom to know – and be comfortable with – the limit of our own expertise and, therefore, to know when it is appropriate to defer to a higher authority. Although it was a little tongue-in-cheek, this was the point I sought to make in my AGW – What would Jesus do? (18 September 2011): However, even if we could get all the greatest intellectual minds together and give them all the information to help them decide what we ought to do, would we listen? Or do we rate our own opinions higher than them; as well as all the experts? This is why climate change denial reduces either to ‘marketplace of ideas’ thinking or to conspiracy theory: But, as I said, there is only one conspiracy and it is not a theory; it is a well-documented historical fact. This was probably best summarised on my very first substantive post on this blog: ‘Sceptical economists are intellectually bankrupt’ (10 August 2011). That leaves us with a decision to take as to whether we are going to listen to the marketplace of ideas or listen to voices of authority. Our decision could have enormous consequences because, until we all insist that our politicians demand that action be taken, our politicians will continue to be controlled by the vested interests of big business and the fossil fuel lobby. Again, this is not conspiracy theory; it is well-documented fact. This too is something upon which you should not have an open mind.

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About Rick Altman

Possibly just another 'Climate Cassandra' crying 'Wolf' in cyberspace. However, the moral of the old children's story is that the Wolf eventually turned up!
This entry was posted in Climate Science, Environment, James Delingpole, Maketplace of Ideas, Politics, Populism, Scepticism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Is having an open mind the problem?

  1. element119 says:

    “What we need is the wisdom to know – and be comfortable with – the limit of our own expertise and, therefore, to know when it is appropriate to defer to a higher authority.” Adam Smith, the father of the modern capitalist ideology that drives the global economy, said that the greatest achievement of civilization is specialization. Professionals are trained extensively in their field and so they make the best decisions. So when it comes to highly scientific issues, of course it is best to leave it to the experts to inform and suggest plans of action. But when it comes to other areas of life and policy, such as conflict and war, then that can be a different story. I have a deep interest in the Palestinian Israeli conflict myself, and with things like that, it is not only the “expert” politicians on both sides that can effect change. Part of fostering sympathy and shaping opinion is, for example, showing the human face behind “the other side” so to speak. An example of this is this article: http://www.maannews.net/eng/ViewDetails.aspx?ID=457621&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter Over time, a difference can be made. I say that when it does come to war and conflict, which we will have all the time, an open mind is essential.

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    • Rick Altman says:

      This comment is verging on being off-topic but I will permit it; and am grateful for it. For the record, I have great interest in the Palestine/ Israel situation too (if only because it is primarily perpetuated by conspiracy theory – see this post on my old Earthy Issues blog). But, to get back to the subject in hand, Adam Smith was a man of his times, a great visionary who did much to make possible what America has become, and he bequeathed to the world much of the Capitalist hegemony we see today. However, despite the fact that I am neither a Marxist nor a Socialist, I do not believe that Capitalism, as it is generally practiced, is either morally or environmentally acceptable today: When the early European settlers of North America began to move west in search of new lands and new opportunities, a Frontier mentality was understandable. However, to retain such an attitude today is socially unacceptable and morally irresponsible: When you live in a wilderness, it is probably safe to treat a passing river as your source of drinking water, washing room, and toilet. However, if you are unfortunate enough to live in a Mumbai slum, this will almost certainly contribute to causing your premature death. Extracted from my What’s wrong with Clean Coal? (21 Nov 2011). See also: The ecological challenge for Conservatism (13 Oct 2011). In sum, I did not intend to imply that having an open mind is always a bad idea; and I believe that the limited scope of my question should have been clear given the nature of this blog.

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      • Rick, I am reading element119‘s comment as using Adam Smith’s specialization concept as support of your theory that we ought to leave environmental issues to the experts. But, for ideas like war, element would not apply that view. We all know how that one could be dangerous. “What do you know about weapons of mass destruction, the experts all say that Saddam has them…” Here is the thing Rick, what if 97% of climate scientists agreed that CO2 emissions were no big deal? What if Hansen came out with a math error that lead to his erroneously adding the 2 – 4C sensitivity, and all along he should have been dividing by 2? Would you just celebrate that the danger to mankind and the planet was now over and throw your support behind Keystone XL? Or would you question it?

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Mmmm. On second reading, it appears you are right. In which case, element119, I apologise, because you are agreeing with me (hooray – miracles may never cease)!

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      • pendantry says:

        John – I know you didn’t address your question to me, but here’s my tuppence anyway: I think you’re conflating several issues. If 97% of climate scientists were to discover that they were wrong all along about the reason for the current bout of historically unprecedented global warming, it would just mean that there had to be another reason for it (it’s a fact, it’s happening, it’s measurable against several criteria). ‘Keystone XL’ though, is another matter entirely: our sad addiction to fossoil is bad not simply from a global warming perspective. Our entire civilisation is based upon a group of resources that a) cause massive damage to the environment as a result of their extraction (eg mountaintop removal mining and oil spills) and b) are running out. We need a rethink. Business as usual simply cannot go on; it’s unsustainable. That you seem intent on continuing to argue the toss makes me seriously wonder about your motives.

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      • Pendantry, you didn’t answer my question. Certainly not as it relates to the issue of having an open mind. So, let me try to ask it again: What if 97% of scientists came to the “consensus” opinion that fossil fuels were not causing any environmental damage. You would question it, and I wouldn’t fault you one bit. My point in asking the question was not to find another way to advocate the use of fossil fuels, but to suggest that it is always OK to question authority. “Consensus” has little meaning. If “consensus” happens to be truth, then there is no harm in me questioning it. If “consensus” happens to be wrong, there is every harm in me not questioning it.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        With respect, John, this does seem pedantic. Despite all of what I have said above, I would agree that it is sometimes necessary to question – if not challenge – authority. Had this not been done, the Church of Rome would have carried on insisting the Sun revolved around the Earth for much longer than it did. We might also still be stuck in the pre-Reagan/Gorbachov Cold War. However, as I have also said to you, modern-day climate change “sceptics” are not like Galileo.# And as Pendantry has pointed out, your hypothetical question is a fallacious one. It is not going to happen. There are many contributory factors but ACD is primarily caused by CO2. If it were not so, the amount of climate disruption we are now seeing would not be capable of being explained by the other contributory factors alone. # With regard to “sceptics” being in the opposite position to Galileo (i.e. they are part of the obscurantist Establishment resisting change), the video embedded in this post by Prof. Barry Bickmore is the best summary of why “sceptics” are wrong that I have ever seen. It is 40 minutes long but, if pressed for time, just view from 19:18 (where he discusses Huntsman and Spencer appealing to Galileo) and from 28:15 (regarding the importance of a modern scientific consensus). Actually, John, watching it again myself, it occurs to me that the entire 40 minutes defeats every single spurious argument you have put to me in the course of the last week. Please watch it in full before commenting further. Please.

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      • Excellent Rick! This morning when I flipped to your blog, it just so happened that I was pouring through Spencer’s blog on the topic of his recent paper, and all the ensuing ruckus including many comments on Spencer’s blog from none other than Barry Bickmore! Rick, Barry’s video doesn’t do what you said it does nor does it purport to. It doesn’t do much debunking other than Spencer’s paper and Monckton. He just gives an excellent discussion on why people believe what they do, which pretty much confirms what I have previously told you on the topic. And, by the way if you really want a good debunking video, check out potholer54’s climate change series, which I believe I previously suggested. Potholer54 spends much time debunking “Lord” Monckton, which is really not hard to do, but still very entertaining. I like him because he is happy to debunk even myths presented by his side and has a section on severe weather. Spending time on Al Gore and Lord Monckton is seemingly a waste, but since some do rely on their “authority,” it is necessary. Barry would not agree with you that I have no right to question and judge the experts, and he might even find it offensive. In fact, he would say that I have every right. He would just caution me on how I do it and from where I get my information. We can even ask him, I bet he would reply to us. In the video, Barry says: “Is it true that people should be going out and checking for themselves?” “Of course they should! There is truth in that.” But he also acknowledges these truths: “Liberals DO sometimes spin environmental issues.” “There ARE some legitimate climate scientists who object to the consensus.” “There MIGHT be a Climate Galileo on the horizon.” “Non-experts SHOULD try to figure out climate science as much as we can.” “There is ALWAYS room for doubt, especially in science, and everyone has biases, but…” then he talks about all the nonsense out there, which of course exists like Lord Monckton. I couldn’t agree more. If one’s case relies on Lord Monckton as an expert climatologist, it isn’t a case at all. I quickly found out about that in regard to the good Lord by none other than….”checking.” Rick, I am going to adjust my view on “consensus”, or at least the way I describe my view (because it hasn’t really changed): “Consensus” of qualified experts is certainly relevant, but only as a good starting point in any investigation. If I were not going to do any investigation, and I were the kind of person that makes all my decisions based on the authority of others, relying on “consensus” would be the right thing to do. Again, Rick, if “consensus” happens to be truth, then there is no harm in me questioning it. If “consensus” happens to be wrong, there is every harm in me not questioning it.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Hi John. Thanks for coming back to me. I am not at all surprised by your comments, as I too noticed Bickmore’s acknowledgement that we should all feel free to challenge authority and investigate truth claims. However, that does not make him an advocate of ‘marketplace of ideas’ thinking. Far from it: I am not going to change anything I have written, therefore, primarily because of the final two slides in Bickmore’s talk, which you have – perhaps unsurpisngly – chosen not to quote: “When you turn veterinarians, metallurgists, and dog astrologers into climate scientists, and rely on fake members of the UK’s Parliament, you are trying too hard to avoid the truth!” So, even if I may have gone a little bit too far (let us say it was for dramatic effect – to get my point across), we, or rather you, are still faced with the decision as to whether to listen to people like Roy Spencer, Pat Michaels and Richard Lindzen (whose research is all partly financed by the fossil fuel lobby), or whether to concede that such people are engaged in… “organized attempts to downplay, deny or dismiss the scientific consensus on the extent of global warming, its significance, and its connection to human behavior, especially for commercial or ideological reasons.” Having obtained his permission directly, so as to ensure it is brought to the attention of all my readers, I will be re-posting the item from Professor Bickmore’s own WordPress blog along with the embedded YouTube video tomorrow. I maintain that it is the best presentation of all the reasons why the debate should indeed be over. You, however, seem to want to continue to insist otherwise. I think Pendanty’s suspicion of your motives is therefore forgivable.

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      • “Therefore, I am not going to change anything I have written because of the final two slides in Bickmore’s talk, which you have – perhaps unsurpisngly – chosen not to quote: ‘When you turn veterinarians, metallurgists, and dog astrologers into climate scientists, and rely on fake members of the UK’s Parliament, you are trying too hard to avoid the truth!'” [N.B. I edited my own words slightly after you lifted this quote from them – ML] Really Rick, I have turned to no such people in my investigation. In fact, I stated in my reply that I agreed with Barry regarding looking to bad authority and even stated “If one’s case relies on Lord Monckton as an expert climatologist, it isn’t a case at all.”

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      • Rick Altman says:

        OK, granted, you may have dismissed, or would dismiss, many of the people to whom Bickmore refers. I will accept that. However, if so, you would appear to have now undermined your own argument for dismissing the 97% figure I am so fond of citing: Indeed, it is in the context of demonstrating the validity of this 97% (of relevantly-qualified climate scientists actively engaged in research and with a decent track record of peer reviewed publications) that Bickmore goes through all the strategies used by so-called “sceptics”: That is, strategies used to “widen the pool” of reputable scientists to include many that supposedly dispute the consensus view that ACD is now a real and present danger to the long-term habitability of planet Earth. So I’m sorry, you cannot have it both ways. You have just demonstrated the folly of your own insistence that “the jury is still out”. It is not. The consensus view is that the debate was over in 1988, when Hansen was first able to attribute climate change to human activity. Unfortunately, through the auspices of the George C Marshall Institute, people like Robert Jastrow, Bill Nierenberg, Frederick Seitz, and S. Fred Singer then chose environmentalism as their new enemy and the rest, as they say, is recent history (i.e. as in Merchants of Doubt).

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    • pendantry says:

      John said: What if 97% of scientists came to the “consensus” opinion that fossil fuels were not causing any environmental damage. You would question it, and I wouldn’t fault you one bit. As you have attempted to put words in my mouth, I will take the liberty of recasting your question as: What if 97% of scientists came to the “consensus” opinion that the theory of gravity no longer applied? to which my answer would be: “I’d look pretty silly, flapping my wings and yearning for the sky.”

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Pendantry, I hope you will not see this as my betraying a confidence but, you suggested to me offline that I will never win an argument with someone like John – he will just give up and go away. Given that nearly 16 hours have elapsed since he last commented, I am wondering whether that time has now come? Of course, if John is taking some of that time to review the large amounts of “new” information received (and/or read Hansen’s book), then, once again, he may deserve an apology for my doubting the sincerity of his “seeking the truth”. However, if it should turn out that he is, instead, compiling another prodigious epistle on a completely new line of spurious argumentation, I shall not be impressed…

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      • “you suggested to me offline that I will never win an argument with someone like John” Pendantry, don’t be so hard on Rick. Like anything in life, with a little work and effort, one day he is bound to win at least one argument with me. Maybe instead offer him some encouragement?

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      • Rick Altman says:

        I think I have won them both, John: 1. The fact that the marketplace of ideas fallacy is the reason most people can’t differentiate misinformation from a legitimate modern-day scientific consensus; and 2. The fact that, as Arthur Mol once put it, “the institutionalised destruction of nature is a structural design fault of modernity” (paraphrased).

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      • Hey Rick, I went and checked the data behind the 97% statement. Just to confirm, you do refer to the Doran Zimmerman study, right? That is what Pendantry is citing. Just asking, thanks.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Correct but, Doran and Zimmerman (2009) is just one of a number of such studies listed on Wikipedia’s “Surveys of scientists’ views on climate change” page. Every time these surveys are done, they confirm previous findings. So, yet again, I ask you: What is driving you to doubt these findings and/or think anyone has anything to hide? If you are not a conspiracy theorist; why do you think it is your job to double-check the validity of other people’s research? However, I am not demanding that you stop. But, when you’re done, don’t keep your findings to yourself, submit them for peer-reviewed scrutiny. If you’re right, you deserve the Nobel Prize for Physics as would Professor Ian Plimer… “If Plimer is right and he is able to show that the work of literally thousands of oceanographers, solar physicists, biologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, and snow and ice researchers during the past 100 years is fundamentally flawed, then it would rank as one of the greatest discoveries of the century and would almost certainly earn him a Nobel prize. This is the scale of Plimer’s claim.” (Prof. Michael Ashley in The Australian newspaper [9 May 2009]).

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      • Well, Rick, they have given out the Nobel Prize for much less. 🙂 Do yourself a favor and throw away the Doran Zimmerman study. It is a poll of 79 climatologists asked if “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures.” I don’t want to speak out of tune, but many skeptics would be in the 97%. I think it reasonable to think that human activity is responsible for probably .5-1.1 C per doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. Many would consider that “significant” but not cause for alarm. This “survey” is not even a real scientific study. Would you really form opinions based on polls of scientists that answer a 2 minute survey? We also must consider what the survey is calling a consensus. SkS responds in their consensus section: “That humans are causing global warming is the position of the Academies of Science from 19 countries plus many scientific organizations that study climate science.” I agree that humans are probably causing global warming, and I suspect Spencer does also: .5 – 1.1 C per doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. The part I don’t know about is the 2.5 – 5.5 C extra temperature rise per doubling of CO2 caused by climate sensitivity alleged by Hanson. Do you think that 97% of climate scientists agree with Hanson’s views on sensitivity and projected sea level rise?

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      • Rick Altman says:

        John, I started to type a response to you but have now decided to turn it into a post in its own right (now published).

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      • Pendantry, on gravity: “When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

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      • Rick Altman says:

        Commendable evidence of a decent education, John, but what exactly is your point? Certainly, you seem unable or unwilling to address any of mine.

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      • Rick, “Yearning for the sky” has little to do with any education and more to do with a love of flight. Which points would you like me to address?

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      • Rick Altman says:

        You could start by falsifying the assertions I made here, or you could even start a new discussion in response to my new post today, by which you may well be flattered that I have indeed addressed it directly to you. It is your decision, but I think the new post might be the tidier option (it also includes some links to things to which I have not previously referred).

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      • Rick, those are really two new topics. I don’t recall discussing your modernism article, and your marketplace views are not really relevant to me nor are they pertinent to our discussion of AGW science or even philosophy. I agree that all ideas are not equal and have never said otherwise. The internet is great because in 10 minutes I can find step-by-step instructions on how to change my timing belt. But in order to find it, I have to sift through many irrelevant posts. So what? All that matters is that I find the one that gets me the “truth” that I seek. Our First Amendment is based upon that principle. Protect all ideas, even the bad ones, so that the good ones can shine through. So Rick, you can “win” arguments we haven’t even had if that makes you feel better.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        With respect, John, they are totally not two new topics. They are the very essence of what we have been arguing about: 1. You continue to insist that it is necessary to question one of the most well-documented scientific facts of our age (namely that excess CO2 in our atmosphere is the primary driver of the accelerating climate disruption that is now taking place); and I am only trying to make you see sense that this is no longer a defensible position to adopt. Far from seeking it, I find it hard to avoid the conclusion that you are, as Bickmore puts it, trying too hard to avoid the truth. 2. I may not have linked to my EM post before, but the quote from Arthur Mol contradicts your stated opinion that Capitalism and Environmentalism are not necessarily on a collision course. Yet again, I repeat, I welcome the fact that you are concerned for the environment; but this does not change the reality that economic development tends to cause environmental degradation; and that pursuit of profit tends to make industry demand less environmental regulation (as per all current GOP candidates for POTUS). So, why don’t you leave the sarcasm to one side and falsify these arguments without reference to psuedo-scientific misinformation being peddled by the fossil fuel lobby (if you can)?

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      • Really only one is relevant, Rick. Again, I am not even sure what is the disagreement about the marketplace issue. As you present it, all ideas are not equal. Agreed. But then you tell me I have no right to question the scientific “consensus.” Further, you seem to oppose me even finding out specifically what that that consensus is, and from your responses, I don’t think even you know. So if you want to blindly follow authority without even knowing what it is, that is your right. But that is not how science works, nor do your sources like Bickmore suggest it. More specifically, science is about disproving hypothesis. That is what a good scientist does. Formulate a hypothesis, and then attack it from all sides. Then submit it to the scientific community to be further so attacked. Then, after that, if it stands, we have made progress. And, it might only stand until further progress is made beyond that. That is good science. That is also what a good citizen does also. But, as Bickmore cautions, it is important to get information from the right place. Agreed. That is why I try to get to the actual scientific basis rather than just citing “Wikipedia.” [You clearly have not read my subsequent post that is addressed specifically to you – ML] “You continue to insist that it is necessary to question one of the most well-documented scientific facts of our age (namely that excess CO2 in our atmosphere is the primary driver of the accelerating climate disruption that is now taking place).” Rick, that is not the consensus. And, yes, I absolutely insist that it is necessary to question this before, as you suggest, moving to a “zero-carbon global economy.” I will tell you exactly why in a bit, as we can’t address every AGW issue in every post.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        John, in light of all that Bickmore says (none of which I have a problem with), I will now re-word my position: Although it is not wise to blindly follow authority, I am disputing that you have any reason to doubt what the consensus view of science is. This is certainly the position Bickmore has reached. He is content that the consensus is real and that its conclusions are valid. You do not seem so content; and I do not understand why that is. BTW, is there any reason why you continue to post comments here as opposed to my subsequent posts (including the one addressed specifically to you- I decided not to wait until midnight)?

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      • “BTW, is there any reason why you continue to post comments here as opposed to my subsequent posts” Because you keep asking specific questions here related to specific posts here. I am only even making this post because… you asked.

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      • “This is certainly the position Bickmore has reached. He is content that the consensus is real and that it’s conclusions are valid.” I submit that Bickmore reached his view by actually investigating the science, and he continues to do so. I have seen him actually discussing the science. He no more wants me to accept his AGW view on the basis that it is his view than he wants me to accept Lord Monkton’s.

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      • Rick Altman says:

        I would prefer it then if you did not try and reduce my position to that of someone who relies on Wikipedia – it is merely, as I think I have said before, a convenient one-stop-shop for finding those all-important sources of information. My position is not one of blindly following anybody. For about the third time I say it then, my post addressed specifically to you today summarises all that I think is illogical about your position; and provides plenty of evidence to support that assertion. Therefore, if you post any more comments here (in this thread) I will ignore and/or delete them. You have been warned.

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  2. Pingback: A response to John Kosowski | Anthropocene Reality

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