Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Selling The Drama

The rhetorical battle between the 'warmers' and the 'denialists' is splattered across the comment pages once again, this time following OFCOM's publication of their ruling on Channel 4's 'The Great Global Warming Swindle'.

I can't be alone in being sick and tired of the back and forth on this issue. I admit to usually taking the side of the sceptics in online debate, perhaps more because I find the tactics of the other lot rather distasteful than for any scientific reason. To say that 'deniers' are regarded by some rather as blasphemers might have been 400 years ago is perhaps an exaggeration, but Brendan O'Neill isn't entirely off the mark in suggesting an antipathy to freedom of expression exists among environmentalists.

I am a university graduate, and I am a postgraduate student in science*, yet I am agnostic on the issue of climate change. Why? I guess because I'm being asked to 'take their word for it' - that is, to trust the IPCC; to trust the "consensus". It doesn't take much reading of Climate Audit, or Watts Up With That, or Climate Skeptic, to begin to think that maybe there's something not trustworthy about the consensus. And, unless I'm about to set off and do a whole 'nother postgrad course in climatology, that's probably going to be the way it's going to stay. Unless, that is, somehow the way in which the argument is conducted changes...

George Monbiot makes an observation in his latest column:

On almost every other weighty issue, the professional classes appear to be better informed than the rest of the population. On global warming the reverse seems to be true. The only people I have met over the past few years who haven’t the faintest idea what man-made climate change is or how it is caused are university graduates.
He suggests that the reason for this is that these people are 'deceived' by the "denial industry". Perhaps there is an alternative explanation: University graduates are more resistant to being told what to think, and more likely to question the received wisdom. For that is what it is - a global plea to "trust me, I'm an expert".

That is, when hectoring environmentalists aren't forgetting that their claims are supposed to reflect scientific consensus at all, and simply going for shock value - truth be damned. Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' succeeded in bringing the issue of climate change to public attention, but how great was the cost in terms of the trust of intelligent and thoughtful people. Statements from the IPCC report were mixed together with "distinctly alarmist" claims that ranged from outright lies to statements with rather debatable scientific validity.

Upon watching this film, a major reason why many members of Monbiot's "professional classes" don't trust environmentalists to tell them the truth should become apparent - its makers were more interested in selling the drama than in scientific objectivity. Similar ludicrous claims - which range to those attacked by Mr Justice Burton are made by environmentalists in the newspapers e.g. Johann Hari and on TV all the time. Do you still wonder why those university graduates, informed and intelligent but not climatologists, are thinking that climate change campaigners are working to an agenda other than that of scientific objectivity.

So, assuming for a moment - as OFCOM have - that the positions reflected in the IPCC's 4th assessment report are the correct ones, how should the 'drama' be 'sold'?

How about this:
  • Dump the unscientific, alarmist, and exaggerated claims.
  • Dump the ad hominem attacks on the unconvinced, starting with the word "denier".
  • Take on the arguments of your opponents rather than smearing them or threatening their freedom of expression.
  • Acknowledge that the average 'believer' is as uninformed about the science of climatology as the average sceptic is
  • Acknowledge that 'An Inconvenient Truth' is a polemic that doesn't reflect the current science, and dissociate yourselves from it.
and most of all:
  • Tell the (scientifically accepted) truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

Then, and only then, climate change campaigners, will the "professional classes" start listening to you and trusting you again. Because at the moment many of them, justifiably, don't.

* I am a PhD student in biology & computing - Nothing related to climate science.

1 comment:

John Angliss said...

But the manner in which many people holding an opinion conduct themselves has very little to do with the validity of the argument they endorse. If we consider all conspiracy theories to be equally false because of their format then how do we react when yesterday's conspiracy theory becomes tomorrow's accepted version of events? There is some semblance of truth which can be discovered in politics.