Saturday, December 12, 2009

Letter to a Denier

I moderate a progressive email group, and recently a global warming skeptic joined in. We've had several private email exchanges regarding his posts. This is the most recent message I sent him:

Hi V-,

I'm not going to put your latest post, "Nature will decide Earth's future", on the group. It's not science in any real sense of the word, and posting he said/she said articles from the popular media doesn't advance the debate. It would be better if you were to write a post explaining why we should believe that article, although you'd get shredded by others making the same point that I just made: It's not science.

Last night I was thinking about our email exchange regarding lunar warming, and it occurred to me that you're missing the big point. Debating lunar warming is pointless unless you can tie it to the Earth's climate. The denialist argument that warming on other solar system bodies explains warming on Earth has pretty much fallen by the wayside as the quality of solar monitoring has improved. Given the current state of the science it's not really a viable argument anymore. Pretty much never was, for that matter. There was no real science behind it, just speculation by people disinclined to believe in AGW.

I'm somewhat unusual, V-, in that I straddle the technical and political worlds. I know enough about the politics, the science, and about both politicians and scientists, to understand who the players are and how the game is played. The stakes may be larger this time around, but the pattern is the same every time science collides with politically powerful vested interests. I watched it play out over the smoking-cancer link, CFC's and the ozone layer, and SO2 and acid rain. I see it now in the approval and regulation of medicines, where I just happen to have a bit of an inside seat. If your goal is to maintain the status quo as long as possible, despite the science, the most effective way to do so is to make sure that the debate isn't about the real science. And there's a well developed and profitable industry to do exactly that.

If you don't believe me try doing a little research about the Heartland Institute's role in the smoking debate. Do you really think it's a coincidence that they're also at the center of global warming denailism?

The techniques to to obscure and denigrate science were first developed by the tobacco companies decades ago. They include things like paying scientists to take positions against the scientific mainstream, creating "independent" scientific organizations and think tanks that support the industry's view, cherry-picking the science to create seemingly plausable alternatives, finding flaws in research, no matter how minor, and using them to discredit the entire body of knowledge, planting psuedo-science to blur the real science, particularly in the minds of the public, and attacking individual scientists to turn the debate to their motives and personal fallibilities.

You're being used, V-, by a bunch of very smart people who earn their living by manipulating the public. I know, because I play that game too, although on a much smaller scale. The difference is that I believe right and wrong should be based on the common good, not profit. And I think you feel the same. That's why it bothers me so much to see how you, and so many other good people, have become pawns of powerful forces that don't give a damn about our individual welfare.

Those prospering under the status quo will always seek to preserve it. That's human nature. But in an era of multinational corporations that rival governments in terms of power and influence, the risks of putting profits ahead of science are far greater. In the end, of course, science always wins, as it did in each of the controversies I mentioned earlier. You can only spit in the face of reality for so long. The only question is what price we will pay for ignoring the lessons of the past.



Miles Grant said...

A great resource is Grist's How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic. And you're dead on about the Heartland Institute. It wouldn't even exist if not for massive amounts of funding from Big Oil.

Marti said...

I don't think these folks are deniers as much as they are stuck in a search for data that supports their opinion instead of a search for truth. They already have a preconceived theory of what the truth is and they'll only let data in that coincides with their belief. It reminds me a lot of Christian apologetics, to be honest. The central thesis begins with the fact that God exists, and they set out to reinforce that.

I think human's biggest fault is our arrogance. I don't think we could destroy this planet, even if we wanted to. What we can destroy is our existence and the environment which allows human beings to live and prosper.

And I agree with you on the tobacco debate as well. Government never moves fast or well to solve a problem. Reform usually comes bit by bit over long periods of time.

I'm 42 years old and I don't think I'll see massive extermination of human beings in my lifetime, but I do think it will probably happen in my son's (he is 19). We are moving too slow and taking steps that aren't even close to fast enough.

On an oblique note, my favorite way to explain rationally why we should support massive greening of our cultures is this video: