The Anguish of Being a ‘Denier’


I really like Dr Brian Cox. I always look forward to watching him on television. He irritates some people, and I understand why, but as a communicator of both the principles and wonder of science he is fantastically adept. He once made a programme on entropy, a notoriously difficult subject, which friends of mine with only the most passing interest in science understood and enjoyed. I very much hope he goes on doing this wonderful work.

But in the second episode of the otherwise excellent Scientific Britannica, which aired recently on the BBC, there was a scene with Cox discussing peer review and the building of scientific consensus, (especially in the context of global warming) with Philip Campbell, editor of Nature. One of the remarkable things was that as part of the same program Cox covered the importance of publishing your method and data for others to check, and even using a red team – blue team approach to improve the validity of experimental results: exactly the sort of rigour that most climate scientists have jumped through hoops to avoid. As someone who rejects the probability of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, I found it almost agonising to watch this sequence. This was not just because I disagreed with what was said, but because it was Cox saying it, and he’s a scientist (a CERN physicist!), and usually for me to flat-out think such a scientist is wrong about a major scientific issue goes dead against the grain.

Now, I think of myself as a rational person. I utterly reject mysticism and the paranormal. I do not believe in homeopathy, creationism, UFOs or moon landing hoaxes. Indeed, on these subjects I vigorously make my views known when I can, while avoiding coming across as a bore or a zealot. I fully accept that smoking causes cancer and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. I cannot think of a single other important subject on which I disagree with orthodox science. I grew up watching Attenborough and Sagan, eagerly soaking up not just individual topics but the underlying message: that the universe is understandable, and quantifiable, and the way to do this is through science.

And now I stand bracketed with the kooks and cranks I so dislike. I will admit there have been times when, presented with a room full of people all agreeing on the coming dire effects of global warming, I have held my peace. Perhaps this makes me a coward. There is certainly no other scientific subject on which I would keep silent in such circumstances. I think it is perhaps not that ‘deniers’ are described as being simply wrong, but that we are tarred as also being uncaring, selfish and strangely malignant. It’s as if we are children, caught pulling the wings off butterflies but still denying our guilt.

I’m not for a moment suggesting that I am simply more intelligent than Brian Cox, or have a deeper understanding of climate science, or am able to weight the evidence better than him. In all of these matters I am certain he would leave me standing. So perhaps I am simply wrong. I contemplate this possibility all the time, and always try to make sure I read the views of and evidence presented by those that disagree with me. Obviously there exists evidence for and against catastrophic anthropogenic global warming, some of it compelling and some doubtful in both camps. But from what I have seen, by far the greater doubt lies on the alarmist side.

There is also the fact that given an identical set of evidence, two equally eminent experts in a field of study can still reach diametrically opposite conclusions. This is comforting in the short term, but in the longer term one of them will still be shown to have been in error. In science, the truth comes out eventually.

Now, there is the possibility that Brian and I are not looking at the same set of evidence. Perhaps I am somehow better informed. In general this feels far-fetched, but maybe, as a scientist himself, he is unwilling to read beyond the usual published pal-reviewed papers, and is unaware of how badly some have been pulled apart on the internet. Maybe he is actually far better read on the subject than I am, and I just need to keep digging. At least I do have one key skill. I know and understand (and revere) the scientific method. And I have seen enough failures in and abuses of this method by those most vocally promoting climate alarmism to utterly undermine their credibility with me.

I suppose this all comes down to the seductive comfort of the appeal to authority. I am not a scientist. I have carried out no first-hand research or experimentation on the topic. I do not fully understand some of the radiative physics and statistical techniques that so often crop up when the global climate is examined. It would be terribly easy to shrug, and think, ‘Well, what do I really know?’ The problem for me is that I just can’t do this. I love science too much. I am curious, and want to know and understand the world around me for myself. And I have looked at the evidence, and I have weighed the arguments, and I cannot help the conclusion I have reached. If I were to now set that conclusion aside, and accept what I am told regardless, that would be a true betrayal of the scientific method.

And I could never do that.


9 responses to “The Anguish of Being a ‘Denier’

  1. A highly unusual article – one by a self proclaimed “denier” who isn’t rabidly anti-science, or ignorant. I still disagree with you though. Perhaps the problem is that there is just too much knowledge, of too many very detailed specifics, for one person to have any chance of understanding even a small proportion of it. In this instance it seems likely that a consensus of experts in each field is highly likely to out-perform the assessment of any general individual “doing his best”. Regardless – you don’t seem certain that AGW doesn’t exist – in which case the safe course of action is to assume that it could be, and act accordingly. If the cost of not acting is catastrophic, and you accept the possibility that AGW is real then the rational position must be one of acting to address it!

  2. “And now I stand bracketed with the kooks and cranks I so dislike.” I feel your pain.

    I respectfully disagree with Jon Scaife above because I think he has skipped a step. The step following accepting that we may affect global warming would be to figure out by how much (the models aren’t much help here yet, being over-sensitive on CO2 equivalents) and if that much is a bad or a good thing.

  3. To divide people into two camps: believers and deniers makes no sense. (It also serves to show how like both politics and religion it is). Neither does it make sense to divide it into 6 billion categories (one for each person on earth). But there is certainly room for 3 or 5 categories and some people may fall into category 1 or 2 on a few issues but be more skeptical on a few other issues. I myself am a scientist and I have spent several hours a day (most days) reading on climate science. That does not make me an expert, but I look at all arguments. I am able to tell which ones are mostly crap, which are exaggerations, etc. There are many good scientists who are luke-warmers (as I am) that know that CO2 should, in theory, increase temperatures, but who, based on the data, believe that the amount of temperature change has been and may continue to be, less than the worst case scenarios, and probably less than even the 2-3 C projections. I also have seen the things scientists say in private or buried in the depths of a paper and how it contrasts with what they say in public or a catchy phrase they may throw in their abstract merely to make their paper seem more important or for it to come up in certain key word searches. The last ten or more years, temperatures have certainly not increased as predicted. This is admitted in the IPCC reports and there have been dozens of papers in Nature, etc., all with different explanations for “the pause”. So, there is no consensus on this point, except that there has been a pause. Yet, there are many uninformed people who will call you a denier, if you state the truth. Also, there is no consensus that extreme weather of all types is to be expected, and certainly little evidence yet in most areas. Yet there are politicians and those in the media and the name callers that mistakenly think that this is what is predicted, even though people like Gavin Schmidt and most other climate scientists will agree that this meme of everything getting worse and that it has begun already, is not true. But again, if you state this fact, where there is actually consensus, you might get called a denier. Pretty sad state of affairs. But, it may change in the next few years, if temperatures and other weather phenomena continue to NOT change drastically. One can hope that reason, sanity and the scientific method will yet emerge victorious and ignorant people will regret their name calling.

  4. Jon Scaife, thanks for your comment, I’m always happy to have people disagree with me if they are polite and rational. You suggest we should invoke the precautionary principle over CAGW but I view this as a fallacy. Every single person on Earth should have clean water, a reliable source of both food and electricity, and access to basic medicine before we spend a penny on global warming. We’re a very long way from that point yet.

  5. Jonathan, please forgive, but I’m having trouble understanding the precise cause of your upset with Brian Cox. Was it because he was fully in tune with CAGW (you didn’t actually say that)? Or because he thought that all the CAGW articles in journals like Nature actually did publish all the code and data (my guess as to why you were upset)?

    That said, I very much agree with your post, it resonates with me. I have had the same issues, I try not to discuss the subject of CAGW in polite company. A short response to a question can make me look like a jerk to people who believe the headlines and don’t did deeper. But a longer response causes the party to end early, way too detailed and boring.

    Worse, I have a friend who is part of grant decisions on warming issues at the National Science Foundation, who says things at parties like, “Sea levels will be 3 feet higher by 2060.” That was the one time I was so incautious as to say something — which was, “I have some good news, sea levels might not rise much more than another foot by 2100.” That is based upon several journal articles, including one by the Bohr Institute showing that during the last interglacial (the Eemian) Greenland contributed about one inch a century for a 6,000 year period when temperatures were nearly 8 degrees C warmer than now. (If Greenland contributes no more than an inch or two by 2100, the other sources reasonably available in the next 85 years are very unlikely to add much more than another 12 inches; significant Antarctica contributions probably wouldn’t start for several centuries, and would likely require centuries of CO2 levels around 600 ppm.)

    The whole room exploded, as if I had attached the theory of global warming itself. Wasn’t I concerned about animals having to migrate (not really, didn’t they have to do that when the earth goes in and out of interglacials)? What about losing land in the NW corner of Alaska (yes, the village there will have to relocate)? And so on. So when a former diplomat pointed his finger in my face and told me that 97% of scientists disagreed with me, I held my temper and said, “Let’s roll this back. I didn’t say that CO2 didn’t warm the planet, I simply said that there is some good news about sea level change, it is very likely to be at the low end of the IPCC range.”

    How is it that telling people that flooding, etc., will be much less than they are worried about causes people to attack you so? My friends have become Zombies of a sort, smart people who cease to use their brains, under some strange autopilot control of others.

  6. John, the main cause of my upset with Brian Cox in that particular programme was that he started a sequence by saying how vital it was for science that data and methods are released, to enable other scientists to replicate your work. Then in almost the next scene he sat down with Paul Campbell and discussed how the building of a consensus is so important to accepting the danger of anthropogenic global warming. For anyone who has actually followed the behaviour of ‘The Team’ in detail, the irony was hard to take. I suspect that Cox accepts the consensus position because it just doesn’t occur to him to check for himself just how terrible so much of the work that is done in climatology is. Because he has worked at CERN and knows how proper science is done, I think he just assumes this is also how climatology proceeds. He probably takes it for granted that anyone who attacks fellow scientists must be a crank.

    I agree that it is very hard to raise objections to climate alarmism without coming across as a bore or a bastard. Most of my friends know I don’t buy into fossil fuel reduction, but I am always careful to stress that I would love us all to change to electric cars to reduce air pollution. I just don’t think we have the right technology yet, and in the meantime I don’t think we should prevent developing countries lifting themselves out of poverty, or start crucifying our own economies.

    Unfortunately, as you say, because the alarmists have seized the high ground as the ‘nice guys’ in this debate, it is all too easy to suspend your faculties for reasoning and sing along with the band.

  7. Jonathan, thanks for explaining.

    I’d like to see electric cars succeed as well. I think it will take some time. In the meantime, the only type of renewable energy I see as not causing significant harm (as wind does to avian and bat life) is photovoltaics. Not yet cheap enough, but lots of projects going on (solar panels off the grid in India and Africa, so that kids can study at night, so that cell phone batteries can be recharged). Apple announced last week that they are building a 2900 acre project in a remote part of Monterey county, CA. What is significant is that this isn’t a desert area, although it is dry. Former mine town is the location. If you can build a big solar farm there, you have expanded the areas which can be used for a photovoltaic “farm.” So I’m hopeful we will get there this century. And if photovoltaics can become widespread — eventually on the E, S, and W sides of commercial buildings — electric cars will eventually get fuel that won’t emit CO2 in its manufacture.

  8. I would just like to add my support for the comments you made regarding Brian Cox on the particular program mentioned.
    I was absolutely outraged by the way in which he promoted the scientific method before completely disregarding virtually all that he had just said when moving on to the question of climate change.
    I believe that Brian cannot be particularly well read in climate.
    Like many involved in scientific research, he has been willing to accept the “correct” option without feeling the need to question. To be fair, when there is such pressure to conform, who would take a strongly sceptical viewpoint without the motivation and the considerable investment in time to research the topic?
    Consider also the pronouncements of The Royal Society and other supposed august bodies which make it very difficult to buck the system.
    As a non scientist with the motivation and time to research the topic, my opinions on climate change are very similar to yours and I look forward to the time when the profiteers and schemers have been exposed and the world can return to using scientific research and common sense to the benefit of humanity,

  9. Thanks for the comment, John.

    I am also sure that the science will eventually self-correct, and global warming will become the example of scientific error, far outstripping current favourites like plate tectonics. Unfortunately, in the meantime people are suffering the consequences, particularly in the developing world.

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