The Climate Debate: Does It Matter Who’s Talking?

Posted on June 27, 2011

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In climate, in science, in any principled discussion, you are always obliged to address the argument, Sam.

“But you don’t,” says Simple Sam. “The kinds of things you say about some people….”

If you can’t address the argument yourself, you should see what the science says, the mainstream science. In climate science that means ….

“Why mainstream? Those conformist cowards….”

Now, Sam, I’m sure the scientists gathering data in Antarctica and the Arctic and drilling cores in Greenland, are not really what you would call conformist cowards. Climate science is put together in so many places by so many different people, some of whom are genuine heroes, that’s its hard to say any one thing that covers them all. But “conformist cowards” hardly describes the climate scientists in Australia right now who are holding firm and fighting back in the face of open hostility and death threats from the climate denial faction. The word “courage” springs to mind.

But to return to my point, no one is an expert in every field. And if you can’t argue a scientific point yourself, you’re obliged to defer to the experts who can. Experts in a field can readily identify what ideas are considered fringe in that field, and they can explain why. Laypersons lack the capacity to make those kinds of judgments or arguments. Regardless, everyone is always entitled to an explanation. It’s the explanation for a scientific judgement which validates it.

“But you’re always going after people and not just their ideas,” says Sam.

Don’t you think it’s relevant who is cutting someone’s paycheques, Sam?

“Well, all these scientists chasing government grants….”

Now you see, there’s the problem in denierland, Sam.

“What do you mean?”

No proper nouns. No specifics. I use proper nouns like ExxonMobil or Koch to connect specific people, specific spokespersons of the climate denial industry, to specific funding sources. It’s not persons unknown going after government funding unknown, leaving the innuendo to speak for itself. Climate denial simply swims in innuendo, mostly because there are so few specifics the climate denial industry has been able to unearth. It’s relevant to give specifics. Otherwise, it’s just talk.

“What about your focus on politics? You’re always bringing up the politics of climate skeptics.”

Excuse me, Sam, while I double over with laughter. Who, pray tell, invented the very idea of a “left wing liberal elite”? Who has so politicized climate science that Congress is now holding votes on the laws of physics?

And in respect of politics, Sam–while it really shouldn’t matter what politics someone has–in a highly politicized debate involving a lot of money, it’s still relevant to note just how political someone is. Are they named as consultants in the literature of one or several conservative lobby groups? An awful lot of prominent climate deniers are. And that’s a pretty high level of political involvement to discount. How many overtly political agencies does the average scientist consult for? Usually zero, I think. When politics is part of your job description it raises legitimate questions about whether politics is, in fact, affecting your scientific judgement. That’s a question I will continue to pose.

My point, Sam, is that while the politics of a scientist usually doesn’t matter, the degree of their politicization might. Especially on a continent where climate denial and the culture wars are being marketed on the same political menu. That is what is happening. In fact I would suggest that many of the most prominent scientists denying the consensus in climate science are better described as scientist-politicians than scientists, since they do as much or more political work than science anyways.

“How can you say that?” asks Sam.

My original point: look who signs their paycheques. ExxonMobil? The Cato Institute? The Koch Brothers? Seems clear enough to me.  When you are hired by lobby groups and political organizations to speak on their behalf, your job is political not scientific.  The description fits, Sam.

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See Did ExxonMobil Break Its Promise to Stop Funding Climate Change Deniers? – MotherJones 

Skeptics for Exxon: Oil Funds Climate of Criticism – DeSmogBlog 

Analysing the ’900 papers supporting climate scepticism’: 9 of the top 10 authors linked to ExxonMobil – The Carbon Brief 

“Using our paper to support skepticism of anthropogenic global warming is misleading.” Part II of our analysis of the 900+ climate skeptic papers – The Carbon Brief 

Energy and Environment – “journal of choice for climate skeptics” Analyzing the 900+ skeptic papers part III – The Carbon Brief