The importance of being earnestly wrong

I began my previous post by asking the question: “Must the World Bank now be added to the supposed list of environmentally-alarmist institutions seeking to use the perceived threat of climate change as a pretext for imposing global authoritarian government via the United Nations?” I followed this by observing that: “This is essentially the position of all those that dispute the reality of the 97% scientific consensus – or the IPCC’s 95% confidence – that humans are the primary cause of the climate change we are now witnessing.” ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ is, of course, a very funny and very famous book by Oscar Wilde. Sadly, this post is neither funny nor famous (not yet, anyway). In fact, this post is prompted mainly by a TED video (embedded below) of a March 2011 talk, entitled ‘On Being Wrong’, given by Kathryn Schulz – the author of ‘Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error’. As the TED website makes clear, in its biography of her, Kathryn is a journalist who has written articles for a wide range of newspapers and magazines and is also a former editor of the Grist blog. She was a 2004 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism (now the International Reporting Project), and has reported from throughout Central and South America, Japan, and, most recently, the Middle East. Anyone who automatically assumes that people with opposing views are either ignorant of all the relevant facts, intellectually incapable of processing the information, or deliberately stating things they know to be false… needs to watch this video. Although this may sometimes be true, in the vast majority of cases it probably is not. Earlier this year, the movie ’Greedy Lying Bastards’ went on general release – and so will soon be available on DVD. Accordingly, reviews are now appearing in the media again. This one by Peter Bradshaw on The Guardian website is typical. For many people, therefore, the truth that the fossil fuel companies have financed a longstanding campaign to perpetuate doubt regarding climate science is a well-established fact – as incontestable as the fact that the tobacco industry did exactly the same for decades in order to sell as many cigarettes as possible. However, there remains a sizeable minority of people on this planet for whom, it seems, the very repetition of this fact is proof of its falsity. For these people, who generally decided what they wanted the truth to be a very long time ago, any evidence that they are wrong is proof that they are right (or that the person presenting the evidence has been duped by – or is part of – the conspiracy to perpetuate a lie). Of course, if you try and point this out to such people, you are accused of peddling your own conspiracy theory. However, tobacco companies have been taken to court and found guilty of trying to hide the link between cancer and smoking. Climate scientists have only ever been taken to court for saying things fossil fuel companies do not want us to hear. This too will be dismissed by the factually-challenged as evidence of a wider conspiracy; now including the judiciary. However, for these people, is there no point at which the simplest explanation (which is supported by observable and documentary evidence) becomes more reasonable than an ever-expanding conspiracy (which is not supported by the vast majority of available evidence)? This brings me back to something else I said on my previous post:

Unfortunately, for such conspiracy theorists, the truth of the matter is much more unpleasant: Climate scientists are not engaged in a global conspiracy to provide the UN with an excuse to subvert the power of national governments. Conspiracy or not, it would be bad enough if our national governments had spent the last 25 years ignoring the warnings of climate scientists. However, the truth of the matter is even more insidious: The IPCC has spent the last 20 years or so compiling reports detailing the nature, scale and urgency of the problem we face, only to have our national governments systematically neuter their reports and ignore the warnings they contained.

So, again, the question remains: What about all those people who are not being paid to misinform (i.e. the so-called ‘Merchants of Doubt)’? How do we explain their existence – and how can we tell the difference between those who are being deliberately deceitful and those who are merely wilfully ignorant? To be blunt, how can we spot the difference between someone who is just bigoted and someone who is being paid to be wrong? I am afraid that I do not know for sure but, having spent an entire year carefully examining all the evidence, I am entirely satisfied by the scientific, historical, and observational evidence – and the logical arguments – that the burning of fossil fuels is altering the Earth’s climate. Therefore, although I can never be certain, despite everything Kathryn Schulz says in the above video, I think it is legitimate to question either the sanity or motives of anyone who repeatedly ignores the fact that their arguments have been shown to flawed; and/or repeatedly re-states things that can easily be determined to be false. No-one should be in any doubt about this: such people are not being sceptical; they are in denial. Sadly, I recently had to delete an entire comment on my most recent post by someone identified only as ‘Oakwood’. He or she claims a professional need to remain anonymous but spends an awful lot of time posting comments on blogs by non-experts such as Anthony Watts (WattsUpWithThat), Steven McIntyre (ClimateAudit) and Andrew Montford (BishopHill). It is, therefore, not that surprising that much of the content of what Oakwood’s comments elsewhere can be traced back to things by these non-experts (whose arguments have all been repeatedly falsified and discredited). I therefore decided to send Oakwood an email in which I started by saying, “You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts…” In response, Oakwood started by saying he agreed with that assertion but, sadly, followed it with yet another re-statement of his own “facts” that are not actually facts at all… Then, as if to add insult to injury, Oakwood followed that litany of previously debunked arguments and climate myths (which I will look at in detail tomorrow), with this masterpiece of unfalsifiability:

…you cannot show any one of these facts to be inaccurate, except by appealing to ‘the consensus’ and making nonsensical statements about ‘believing all scientists to be liars’.

This is a self-sealing argument that is entirely predicated on conspiracy theory: If the consensus is real, reliable and reasonable, there is no legitimate reason to doubt the science. Therefore, doubting the science can only be justified by asserting that the consensus is unreal, unreliable or unreasonable. This does not require all scientists to be liars; but it does require the vast majority of genuine experts to be either stupid, mistaken or mendacious. Tomorrow, probably not for the last time, I will rebut all of Oakwood’s “facts” in part two of this series, entitled: ‘The imprudence of being earnestly Oakwood’.


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, Cognitive Dissonance, Denial, Economics, Environment, Fossil Fuels, IPCC, Maketplace of Ideas, Merchants of Doubt, Politics, Scepticism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The importance of being earnestly wrong

  1. Pingback: The imprudence of being earnestly Oakwood | Anthropocene Reality

  2. T. Caine says:

    Good post. I think it’s healthy for all of us to go into almost every debate with the acknowledgment that there is a possibility we are wrong. Even with the things we believe to be certain of, I think we should always demand (of ourselves) of the need to be continuously convinced.


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