Vapidity, everywhere

My nose is to the grindstone at the moment, and whilst, every so often, I look up to see what is happening, I’m hard pressed to find the time to blog about (or even put in hyphens where they are necessary). If I had the time, I’d be talking about the vapid conspiracy theories being put forward to discredit the cadré of climate scientists who, using our best inferential practices based upon the evidence and well-accepted scientific principles, have shown that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.

I’ve noted the histrionics of Poneke before, who appears to be leading a one-person brigade against the Science Media Centre. He’s at it again, now essentially arguing scientists can’t have political views that are based upon their research, which resurrects that strange notion that the Sciences are not just politically neutral, but that we also shouldn’t expect policy makers to take heed of what the Sciences tell us.

Poneke’s central problem in this debate is that he doesn’t seem to be able to:

a) see the ‘problem’ in perspective, and

b) identify appropriate authorities.

The first issue has to do with his, and other journalists, contention that the Himalaya glacier error is an egregious mistake in the IPCC report. People like Poneke think that individual mistakes like these show evidence that someone or some body is trying to pull the wool over our eyes. What they fail to realise is that mistakes like these will occur in large reports like the fourth assessment; if these errors are common, then we have a problem, but the evidence indicates that this is one a very small number of mistakes. The IPCC’s response to this has been entirely appropriate; people are embarrassed and are working to ensure such mistakes don’t creep in again.

Of course, for a conspiracy theorist about anthropogenic climate change, like Poneke, this admission that it won’t happen again is probably proof positive that ‘they’ will ensure similar mistakes are never spotted.

The second issue is the more crucial, I think. Poneke and others in the media sometimes mistake people who present themselves as authorities in a discussion as being appropriately qualified authorities in a field relevant to the discussion. Let me say this straight out: Christopher Monckton is not an appropriately qualified authority when it comes to the discussion of climate change. He is merely someone who presents himself as an appropriately qualified authority.

How can we tell. Well, a legitimate appeal to authority requires that all of the following three conditions be met:

1. The person appealed to is a genuine authority in a field relevant to the discussion,
2. There is substantial agreement among experts in that field that the view endorsed is correct, and
3. The expert is testifying honestly.

Monckton fails on condition one; he is not a genuine authority in a field relevant to the discussion. Rather, he is, at best, a talent amateur with a gift for self-promotion.

Now, I’ve chosen Monckton here because he seems to be the golden boy of many a climate change denier; Poneke relies more on the utterances of our own New Zealand Climate Science Coalition, which is made up of industrial chemists and the like. Poneke is, at least, mistaking scientists in one field for being experts in some other, which is better than the Peter Cresswells of this world who put Monckton on a pedestal and also claim to be big fans of Science.

Naughty naughty.

Humans are quite bad at recognising appropriate authorities, and even the ‘saints’ of critical thinking in the world of Skeptics have a hard time of it; James ‘The Amazing’ Randi recently mistook the Oregon Petition as denoting a set of genuine authorities in a field relevant to the discussion rather than what is actually represents, which is mostly TV weather forecasters ((Although ‘TV weather forecaster’ probably suggests someone who forecasts weather on TV, I’m now reading it as suggesting ‘people who forecast TV weather…’ “Over on ‘Lost’ it looks like it’ll be a windy day for the survivors, with scattered rain and hail towards the afternoon…”)), for example. It’s a difficult business appraising whether someone has a qualified opinion on a subject (and it certainly doesn’t help that there is a growing movement of anti-intellectualism in grassroots skepticism; in some of these debates you either need to be an expert to contribute or you need to know who the actual experts are). Common sense won’t get you very far, especially when you are dealing with systems that are so complex that they defy our facile intuitions about how we think the world works.

Which is all I’m going to say about the vapid AGW conspiracy theories for the time being. PhD theses don’t complete themselves, you know.


Marinus says:

“Although ‘TV weather forecaster’ probably suggests someone who forecasts weather on TV, I’m now reading it as suggesting ‘people who forecast TV weather…’ “Over on ‘Lost’ it looks like it’ll be a windy day for the survivors, with scattered rain and hail towards the afternoon…””

Ah, English, with its lack of a productive way to make noun-noun compounds. Over at Language Log (greatest blog on the internet) they call this type of thing a ‘crash blossom’. Me, I call it ‘a likely name for the next The Fall 7″ single’.