Posted under Express 150
Calling all scientists: skeptics, deniers and believers!
Historian Arnold Toynbee — one of the
greatest of all experts on the rise and fall of civilizations — when asked what
critical mistake seemed most often to lead to a collapse said “failure to
support and believe in the society’s creative minority.” In our own
technological, enlightenment nation and civilization, that creative minority,
in large part, is one of science, says David Brin. We do not have to worship
their feet, or obey blindly. But we’ll be fools, treading the downhill slope
followed by Babylon and Rome, if we despise them. Thanks to Richard Cassels of
Climate Leadership in Brisbane for bringing this long article by scientist and
author Brin to our attention. Read More
By David Brin, Ph.D.
Among the many battlefronts in culture war,
few have raised a specter of worry among scientists more than the great big
imbroglio over Human-generated Global Climate Change (HGCC)… also called
Anthopogenic Global Warming (AGW). Especially in America, positions are staked
and fiercely held, by parties who claim they are evidence-based, while their
opponents are either conspirators or the gullible “koolaid-drinking”
tools of a propaganda machine. An especially vexing aspect of this polarization
is the near perfect correlation of one side in this controversy with a
pre-established position along the left-right political axis. Even worse is an
undercurrent of spite for expert opinion, as a basis for guiding public policy.
Trained as a scientist, and knowing many who
research planetary atmospheres, I tend toward listening to expert advice on
this complicated issue — especially since the policy endeavors that they are
recommending consist of things we should be doing anyway, for other reasons
(e.g., to attain energy independence, to reduce the influence of foreign
petro-oligarchs, and to increase economic efficiency). Perhaps because my
graduate studies included some cellular fluidics models, I have some
appreciation for the folks who do such things well, propelling (for example)
spectacular advances in weather forecasting. My first instinct is to give such
people the benefit of the doubt.
(Ironically, I am also the one who coined the
term “age of amateurs” and have preached expanded respect for citizen
power, the only thing that actually worked during the 9/11 tragedy. These two
views are not inconsistent. Amateur scientists, especially, will avow that
expert knowledge matters. It is the starting point from which paradigm-dissent
In earlier missives, I appraised HGCC Denial
on both technical terms and in the context of a broader war on science. On this
occasion, I want to be primly specific, because there is a fine distinction to
be made among those who cast doubt upon the HGCC consensus.
Not every person who expresses doubt or
criticism toward some part of this complex issue is openly wedded to the shrill
anti-intellectualism of Fox News — nor do all of them nod in agreement with
absurd exaggerations, e.g., that a winter snowstorm refutes any gradual warming
of Earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, you are likely to know some individuals who
claim not to be “global warming deniers” but rational, open-minded
I find this distinction attractive, at the
surface, because I too find some parts of HGCC theory unclear, ill-supported or
poorly explained. In such a complex field, there are sure to be gaps. For
example, the oceans are evidently drawing more carbon dioxide out of the
atmosphere than anyone can explain. Will this fortuitous extra-absorption reach
a limit soon? Might some of the stored CO2… or the hydrated methane now
locked in sub-sea ices or in permafrost, reach some temperature tipping point
and suddenly flood forth, quickly transforming the greenhouse warming effect
from sub-linear to runaway super-linear? Also, as a contrarian-modernist, I
have some affinity for geoengineering proposals that are unpopular on the left.
Hence, if I meet a person who makes the
“denier-skeptic” distinction, I start from a willingness to be
persuaded. I have met a number of people who seem convincingly to fit into the
latter category. Several are fellow science fiction authors or engineers, and
you can quickly tell that they are vigorous, contrary minds, motivated more by
curiosity than partisan fever. One I could name is the famed physicist Freeman
Alas, I have found that a much larger number
use the term “skeptic” simply as a trick of re-labeling, while
wallowing in the standard narratives of distraction and delay. Hence, the matter
What traits distinguish a rational,
pro-science “skeptic” — who has honest questions about the AGW
consensus — from members of a Denier Movement that portrays all members of a
scientific community as either fools or conspirators?
After extensive discussions with many AGW
doubters, I believe I have found a set of distinct characteristics that
separate the two groups.
WHO IS AN EXPERT?
Skeptics first admit that they are
non-experts in the topic at hand. And that experts tend to know more than they
Sound obvious? Since the Neolithic, human
civilizations have relied on specialists, a trend that accelerated across the
20th Century. Reasonable people begin their paradigm-dissent by stipulating
respect for the decades that intelligent people invested in complex realms like
radiative transfer, ocean chemistry, or microcell computer modeling.
This does not mean experts are always right!
But this simple admission separates our Skeptic from the Deniers, who partake
in the modern notion that vociferous opinion is worth as much as spending
twenty years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.
THE NEWS I NEED FROM THE WEATHER REPORT
Next, the Skeptic is keenly aware that, after
4,000 years of jokes about hapless weathermen who could not prophesy accurately
beyond a few hours, we recently entered a whole new era. People now plan three
days ahead pretty well, and more tentatively as far as 14 days, based on a
science that’s grown spectacularly adept, faster than any other. Now, with
countless lives and billions of dollars riding on the skill and honesty of
several thousand brilliant experts, the Skeptic admits that these weather and
climate guys are pretty damn smart.
The Skeptic further avows that this rapid
progress happened through a process of eager competitiveness, with scientists
regularly challenging each other, poking at errors and forcing science forward
– a rambunctious, ambitious process that makes Wall Street look tame.
Deniers also share this utter reliance on
improved weather forecasting. They base vacations and investments on forecasts
made by… the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks.
Miraculously, they see no contradiction.
(Side note: There is a distinction between
weather and climate. Both deal in the same oceans, vapors, gases and sunlight,
using almost identical basic equations and expertise. Both are extremely
complex, and deal with that complexity with simplifying assumptions and
boundary conditions. Clearly, climate modeling is more primitive, right now.
Perhaps it is even rife with errors! Still, the overall tools, methods,
community and eagerly-skilled people overlap greatly.)
A LITTLE HUMILITY
Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare
and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a
consensus-model, before splitting up to fight over sub-models. Hence, if an
outsider perceives “something wrong” with a core scientific model,
the humble and justified response of that curious outsider is to ask “what
mistake am I making?” — before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.
In contrast, Deniers glom onto an anecdotal
“gotcha!” from a dogma-driven radio show or politically biased blog
site. Whereupon they conclude that ALL of the atmospheric scientists must be in
on some wretched conspiracy. Uniformly. At the same time.
IS IT REALLY CLOSE TO 100%?
At the 2008 Future in Review Conference,
Harvard professor James McCarthy, former co-chair of the IPCC, was asked how
many of the world’s top 1000 climate experts would disagree with the basic
scientific consensus that the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations over
the last 50 years to levels not seen in 650,000 years is primarily
anthropogenic and is the cause of an increase in global temperatures. He
This fits with my own anecedotal experience,
asking the same question of about a dozen top atmospheres people, over the
years. But the smoking gun, again, is the “dog that hasn’t barked in the
night.” Despite publicly bruited offers of jobs, publicity and lavish
rewards from fossil fuel companies and neoconservative media, very few
qualified experts in climate have stepped forward to object to the overall
consensus on AGW, and those have couched their doubts very specifically, so as
to be almost useless to the Denial Community.
THE YOUNG GUNS OF SCIENCE
We cannot say too often that, just because
nearly all of experts are in consensus, their paradigm might still turn out to
be wrong. Still, the Skeptic admits this is rare in science history. Moreover,
a steep burden of proof falls on those who claim that 100% of experts are
wrong. That burden is a moral, as well as intellectual geas.
The Denier, in contrast, cares little about
the history of science, and especially has no understanding of how the Young
Guns in any scientific field… the post-docs and recently-tenured junior
professors… are always on the lookout for chinks and holes in the current
paradigm, where they can go to topple Nobel laureates and make a rep for
themselves, in a manner much like Billy the Kid. (Try looking into the history
of weather modeling, and see just how tough these guys really are.)
This is a crucial point. For the core Denier
narrative is that every single young atmospheric scientist is a corrupt or
gelded coward. Not a few, or some, or even most… but every last one of them.
Only that can explain why none of them have “come out.” Especially
given that Exxon and Fox News offer lavish rewards for any that do.
One Denier narrative claims that the experts
are corrupted by “millions pouring into green technologies”…
without showing how a space probe researcher, studying Venus at JPL, profits
from a contract going to a windmill manufacturer in Copenhagen. But we’ll
return to conspiracy theories in a bit.
No, I am not proclaiming that all young
scientists are noble, brave, insightful and incorruptible. On average, most
scientists are propelled by adventure, curiosity and macho-competitive guts,
but I’ve known plenty who weren’t. Nevertheless, after working with folks in
dozens of scientific fields, I know that the best of the Young Guns have the
knowledge, tools and ambition to start screaming when they spot “holes in
the consensus.” If all the post-docs and junior-tenureds in atmospheric
studies have timidly laid down – and this has also silenced experts in related
fields like meteorology — then this is the first time it happened in any large
scale field of science. Their acceptance of the AGW model means something.
Still, one is drawn to imagine why a Denier
can imagine that all the Young Guns are either cowed by authority figures or
suborned by greed for measly five figure grants… perhaps because that is the
way things work in the Denier’s own field. It is a natural human mistake, to
assume that others are like yourself. Nevertheless, it remains a mistake.
The Skeptic takes the absence of Young Gun
dissenters into account, adding it to the burden of proof borne by the other
WHO ARE THE MORE LIKELY CONSPIRATORS?
Alas, still fizzing with questions, the
Skeptic hasn’t finished “admitting things” yet, in order to have her
curiosity taken seriously. For example, she openly admits who the chief
beneficiaries of the current status quo are: those who spent two decades
delaying energy efficiency research and urging us to guzzle carbon fuels like
mad. But let’s have it out, in the open.
The guys who benefit from keeping us on the
oil-teat are… foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon. That
is where the money flows.
Our Skeptic admits that these fellows have
Trillions (with a T) staked on preserving things as they are — on preventing
America from moving toward energy efficiency and independence. He admits that a
conspiracy among fifty petro oligarchs seems more plausible than some
convoluted cabal to “push green technologies” — a supposed conspiracy
involving tens of thousands of diverse people, most of them nerdy
blabbermouths, squabbling over far smaller sums of money.
Though a comparison of relative plausibility
doesn’t prove anything, it does illuminate the starkly uneven way that paranoia
is allocated in the Denier Movement.
THE TOBACCO CONNECTION
While looking at this aspect of things,
consider some eerie parallels in methodology with the Great Big War over
Tobacco. Some of the very same consulting groups who formulated Big Tobacco’s
“deny, delay, and obfuscate” strategy – providing that industry with
nearly four decades in which to adjust to growing societal awareness of its
problems — are working on the Climate and Energy Denial Front today, with
precisely the same agenda. As one analyst recently put it:
“I think that the main driver for this
movement is that when you compare the US economy ‘before’ and ‘after’
acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant
differences will be the value of owning particular stocks. It’s impossible to
dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial
sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping
through the floor. But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public
acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even
reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries.
“This strategy became especially crucial
for them, when their earlier gambit — investing Social Security trust funds in
the stock market — fell through. This would have allowed brokers to unload half
a trillion dollars in failing assets on millions of naive new stockholders. We
now know retirees would have lost hundreds of billions.”
This parallel with Big Tobacco is creepy in
the short term, but in the longer view it actually gets puzzling. Because in
the end, the tobacco industry faced severe public ire and prodigious liability
judgments as punishment for these very tactics. Judgments that they escaped
only through fast-footed political maneuvering. This raises a fundamental
If the Denier Movement’s knowing and
deliberate obstruction of climate remediation can be plausibly shown to have
contributed toward vast losses of real and intangible property and the
displacement of millions of refugees, will the top-most Deniers then be liable
for damages, under common and tort law, as well as precedents set by the tobacco
This appears to not have been discussed
anywhere that I know of. But neither was the possibility of tort penalties
against Big Tobacco, back when the cancer findings were new. The relevance to
our Skeptic/Denier distinction becomes crucial:
Those who merely ask scientific questions,
while simultaneously helping push for energy independence, will be safe enough.
Differences of opinion, over science, won’t be actionable, whichever side
On the other hand, those who directly and
deliberately obstructed reasonable precautions and progress toward efficiency
may face an angry and litigious world, if the expert forecasts prove to have
been right, all along. Preventing action that, upon expert advice, might have staunched
or curtailed harm, is legally culpable.
Are they so very sure that they will be able
to control politics and the courts next time the chickens come home to roost?
In effect, the topmost promoters of Denialism are betting everything they own.
THE “1% PRECAUTIONARY” PRINCIPLE
Shifting from a legalistic to a polemical
point — Denialism demands that “no rash measures should be taken, until
there is proof of danger.” That paraphrasing sums up the reasonable-sounding
The rash measures to which they point are
typically draconian carbon taxes, slapped as a burden across the entire
economy. If one assumes that the world and American economies would be severely
affected by such taxes, then the picture is of a zero sum game, a tradeoff
between two grievous harms. And since the harm wrought by taxation is
considered concrete and that from climate change is still abstractly nebulous,
any shift to concerted AGW remediation requires extreme justification. In other
words, this reasoning alone shifts the burden of proof onto the shoulders of
those urging action. A burden that — as we have seen — cannot be met even with
99% scientific consensus.
But there are several logical problems with
this pillar of the movement. First, economists generally have less than
expected fear of diversionary taxes — levies that are applied consistently and
predictably, to permanently shift markets over to a new equilibrium position,
where costs that had been intangible are now made tangible and where it is
deemed in society’s interest to encourage a shift to alternate spending.
History shows that markets adjust to such alterations of the playing field. So
long as consistency is maintained. For example, “sin” taxes on
alcohol, and especially tobacco, had the desired social effect of gradually
shifting consumer habits, while incorporating many of the formerly intangible
costs of smoking into the purchase price. Predicted devastating impacts upon
whole farming regions did not materialize, as markets and producers adapted.
But this portion of the argument is a bit arcane and complex. It merits a completely
What can be established more compactly is
that carbon taxes are an extremum, a worst case bogeyman, especially since the
political wing that incorporates Denialism has also blocked almost every other
endeavor that might help society move toward efficiency, including even
expansions in energy research. Hence, “rashness” has never been the
criterion for opposition.
Indeed, were carbon taxes the core villain, conservatives
who were otherwise sincere about “energy independence” would have
been vigorous in promoting alternative means of remediation. They have not
But let’s return to the basic matter of
Burden of Proof.
A widely-touted notion called the Precautionary
Principle holds that some kinds of danger call for preventive action, even if
the peril in question has not yet been proved. This principle is not lefty
nostrum. It was put forward most insistently by that icon of the
neoconservative right, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who explicitly
proclaimed the Precautionary Principle, over a matter far less fell and
threatening than Human-generated Global Climate Change. According to Cheney’s
so-called “One-Percent Doctrine”:
“If there’s a 1% chance that Pakistani
scientists are helping al-Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to
treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.”
Cheney went on to state that even
aggressively peremptory acts of war, leading to great pain and cost, are
justified if there is a small likelihood that greater pain and cost can be
So, how much more compelling is it, to act on
AGW, if the potential overall harm to both planet and nation is vastly worse
than a couple of dirty bombs? Are we to believe that 99% of the experts are so
discredited that there is less than a one-percent chance that continuing to
pump anthropogenic carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would cause catastrophic
Clearly, the Skeptic accepts that some things
ought to be done, urgently and with full force of national and public will,
even-though and even-while he nurses doubts about the likelihood of the full
Global Warming scenario. She does not armwave vaguely against “rash
actions,” but actively engages in negotiation over which urgent efficiency
measures to promote. Even if only as a precaution.
THE ROLE OF PROPAGANDA MEDIA
Further, the Skeptic admits something pretty
darned creepy and suspicious — that the main “news” outlets pushing
the Denier Movement are largely owned by those same petro-moguls who have
benefited from delayed energy independence. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of
Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch’s
debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil
companies own other portions.) Because of this, the Climate Skeptic has moved
away from getting any of his news or sense of “reality” from
propagandists who are paid to keep America divided, weak, passively addicted to
dependence, respectful of aristocracy, and mired in “culture war.”
The Denier, in contrast, suckles from the
Fox-Limbaugh machine. He shrugs off any notion that oil sheiks, Russian
oligarchs or Exxon moguls could possibly have any agenda, or ever, ever connive
together. They are pure as driven snow… compared to weather and climate
Elaborating a bit: the Skeptic has noticed
that the Denier Movement is directly correlated — with almost perfect
predictability — with a particular “side” in America’s calamitous,
self-destructive Culture War. The same side that includes “Creation
Science.” The same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the
Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles and magical
“financial instruments.” The same side that promised us “energy
independence” then sabotaged every single effort, including all of the
energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And
that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention to than carbon
While the Denier sees this association of
parallel anti-intellectual movements as a good thing, one that enhances the
credibility of Denialism Movement, the Climate Skeptic has the mental courage
to be embarrassed by it. Even while remaining a conservative, she is pulling
herself away from all that.
(See an accompanying article “A War on
Expertise” for a concise theory as to what the underlying agenda of the
propaganda really is.)
WHY IT’S HARD TO GET THE SCIENTISTS TO ANSWER
Having admitted all of those things, the
Skeptic now feels sufficiently distanced from madmen, oiligarchs and
reflex-puppets to express legitimate curiosity about a scientific matter much
in the news. Moreover, he knows that this is his perfect right!
We do not live in a society where elites are
gods. Not the rich or even scientists. The Skeptic refuses to get caught up in
the reflex anti-intellectualism being pushed by the faux-right. But he also
knows that amateurs can be smart, and that curiosity was God’s greatest gift to
Moreover, our Skeptic feels like a smart guy!
He’s generally pretty well-educated and good in his own field. Above all, he is
a free citizen of the greatest and most scientifically advanced republic ever!
And so, by gum, having admitted all that stuff (see above), he now wants his
curiosity satisfied! He wants the atmospheric experts to answer hard questions
about some things that SEEM contradictory between the data and the model.
A FINAL MILESTONE
Ah, but there is one more thing our poor
Skeptic has to admit, if she truly is honest and ready to start peppering the
experts. She needs to acknowledge that atmospheric scientists are human.
Furthermore, having tried for twenty years to
use logic, reason and data to deal with a screeching, offensive and nasty
Denial Movement, these human beings are exhausted people. Their hackles are up.
They have very, very important work on their plates. Their time is valuable
and, frankly, they see little point in wasting any more of it trying to reason
with folks who:
– deny that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse
then deny human-generated burning of carbon fuels has increased greenhouse gas
content in the atmosphere
then claim the increase won’t affect temperatures
then claim there is no warming
while the US Navy is furiously making plans to traverse an “ice-free”
then claim humans have no role in the warming
then admit we’re causing it
claim it’s already too late
anyway they’ll have a longer growing season in Alberta
then shout that we can’t afford efforts to wean ourselves of greenhouse
even though the things that would address AGW happen to be stuff we should be
doing anyway, to gain energy independence, increase productivity, reduce the
leverage of hostile petro powers, and a dozen other important things.
Mr. or Ms. Skeptic, can you see how wearing
it has been, dealing with a storm of such BS? Can you admit that the
professionals and experts may not, at first, be able to distinguish sincere
skeptics, like you, from the maniacs who have been chivvying and screaming at
them (on puppet-orders from Fox and Riyadh and Moscow) for years?
AGW “Skeptics” like you are
saddened to see that many of the scientists are prickly, irritable and sullen
about answering an endless stream of rehashed questions, only a few of which
aren’t blatant nonsense. (Some have even resorted to less-than-professional
tactics.) But you Skeptics — the smart and honest ones — understand what’s
happened. And so, you’ll cooperate about helping the experts feel safe to come
out and share what they know. And maybe then they will answer some of the Skeptics’
SO WHAT’S A SINCERE AND ENLIGHTENED SKEPTIC
This is when the honest Climate Skeptic
recites what I suggested earlier.
“Okay, I’ll admit we need more
efficiency and sustainability, desperately, in order to regain energy
independence, improve productivity, erase the huge leverage of hostile foreign
petro-powers, reduce pollution, secure our defense, prevent ocean
acidification, and ease a vampiric drain on our economy. If I don’t like one
proposed way to achieve this, then I will negotiate in good faith other methods
that can help us to achieve all these things, decisively, without further delay
and with urgent speed.
“Further, I accept that ‘waste-not, want
not’ and ‘a-penny-saved, a-penny-earned’ and ‘cleanliness-is-next-to-godliness’
and ‘genuine market competition’ used to be good conservative attitudes. But
the “side” that has been pushing the Denial Movement — propelled by
petro-princes, Russsian oligarchs and Exxon — hasn’t any credibility on the
issue of weaning America off wasteful habits. In fact, it’s not conservatism at
“And so, for those reasons alone, let’s
join together to make a big and genuine push for efficiency.
“Oh, and by the way, I don’t believe in
Human-caused Global Climate Change! But if I am wrong, these measures would
help deal with that too.
“So there, are you happy, you
blue-smartypants-eco-science types? Are you satisfied that I am a sincere
Climate Skeptic and not one of the drivel-parroting Deniers? Now can some of
your atmospheric scientists put on an extended teach-in and answer some
inconvenient questions? (Oh, and thanks for the vastly improved weather
reports; they show you’re smart enough to be able to explain these things to a
humble-but-curious fellow citizen like me.)”
As I said earlier, when I meet a conservative
AGW skeptic who says all that (and I have), I am all kisses and flowers. And so
will be all the atmospheric scientists I know. That kind of statement is
logical, patriotic and worthy of respect. It deserves eye-to-eye answers.
But alas, such genuine “skeptics”
IS IT ALL FOR NOTHING?
Have I wasted my time, here? Because, while
the species of sincere, conservative-but-rational AGW Skeptics does exist (I
know several, and kind-of qualify as one, myself), they turn out to be rare.
For the most part, those calling themselves “climate skeptics” are
nothing but fully-imbibed Denialists, who wallow in anecdotes and faux-partyline
talking points, participating in something that is far more insidious and
devastating to our civilization than mere Energy Company Propaganda.
As I have suggested elsewhere, the real
purpose of it all may be to undermine the very notion of expertise in our civilization,
leaving no strong force to challenge any ruling elite. But whatever the
underlying purpose, one result is clear: Tens of thousands of Denialists
egotistically assume that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-rage opinion
entitles them to howl “corrupt fools!” at the men and women who have
actually studied and are confronting this important topic.
Historian Arnold Toynbee — one of the
greatest of all experts on the rise and fall of civilizations — when asked what
critical mistake seemed most often to lead to a collapse said “failure to
support and believe in the society’s creative minority.”
In our own technological, enlightenment
nation and civilization, that creative minority, in large part, is one of
science. We do not have to worship their feet, or obey blindly. But we’ll be
fools, treading the downhill slope followed by Babylon and Rome, if we despise
Brin is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels
include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The
Uplift War. (The Postman inspired a major film in 1998.) Brin is also known as
a leading commentator on modern technological trends. His nonfiction book –
The Transparent Society — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American
Library Association. Brin’s newest novel Kiln People explores a fictional near
future when people use cheap copies of themselves to be in two places at once.
The Life Eaters — a graphic novel — explores a chilling alternative outcome
of World War II.